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CMU robotics center rebuilding staff after 'Uber crisis'

| Monday, March 7, 2016, 1:36 p.m.
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Team Tartan Rescue's CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) robot competes Saturday, June 6, 2015, in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge in Pomona, Calif.
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Judges and officials meet to decide how to proceed when Team Tartan Rescue's CHIMP (CMU Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform) robot crashed its vehicle Saturday, June 6, 2015, during the driving task of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge in Pomona, Calif.

Carnegie Mellon University said Monday its National Robotics Engineering Center is thriving a year after it lost 40 researchers and scientists to Uber when the ride-share giant opened a Lawrenceville research facility.

But the “Uber crisis,” as School of Computer Science dean Andrew Moore called it, delivered a significant blow to NREC's research activities, officials now say. Although the Uber exodus didn't force NREC to abandon any research, Moore said NREC research contracts are expected to total $17 million to $18 million this fiscal year, down from an average of $25 million to $27 million in years before the exodus.

Moore said NREC is back on a “growth pathway.”

Carnegie Mellon said NREC landed four federal research contracts in recent months that will amount to $11 million in the next three years. Three are Defense projects, while one is geared toward agriculture.

The university said NREC has hired 10 staff members in the past six months, bringing its workforce back to about 100. That's down from about 140 before the Uber exodus, in which top talent left CMU to work at the new Uber Advanced Technologies Center. NREC plans to hire another five to 10 staffers in coming months.

“As the leading academic robotics research center in the world, we're accustomed to a natural flow of technical and research talent (going) back and forth between academia and industry,” Moore said.

“We hire a lot of superstars away from other research centers, and other centers hire superstars from us,” Moore said.

The recently landed contracts include:

• $4.2 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop technology allowing wheels to transform into tracks so vehicles can navigate a variety of terrains.

• $4 million from the Defense Department's Test Resource Management Center to develop automated testing for critical software.

• $2.4 million to develop automation enabling aircraft to operate safely with smaller crews in a DARPA project with the Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky.

• $1 million to develop robotic vehicles to monitor sorghum plants in an Energy Department project with Texas A&M University's AgriLife Center.

Aside from contracts, NREC's CHIMP robot finished third in last year's DARPA Robotics Challenge in California, earning a $500,000 prize. Robots from around the world had to perform tasks that could prove valuable in disaster response, such as driving a car, opening doors, using tools, closing valves and clearing debris.

The 443-pound CHIMP had a disaster of its own during the challenge, falling down as it went through a doorway while out of radio contact, Moore said. It managed to get back on its feet without assistance, the only robot to do so during the competition.

“It was one of the most stressful and most exciting 10 minutes the Robotics Institute has seen,” said Moore, who watched the DARPA Challenge from home.

NREC is part of the larger Robotics Institute, which has 410 graduate and undergraduate students and more than 500 faculty, technical staff members and postdoctoral and visiting researchers. In response to the growing demand for roboticists and to the Uber exodus, Moore said the Robotics Institute has “turned up the dial” on expanding its master's degree programs, which have grown by a third.

It's a large part of Pittsburgh's “emerging café culture in robotics,” which also includes robotics experts working for startups and other companies and numbers more than 1,000 people. Moore said Pittsburgh is “becoming one of the world's great centers in robotics,” along with traditional power centers such as Tokyo and Boston.

Although Carnegie Mellon is not working directly with Uber on autonomous vehicle research, the ride-share giant said last year it would provide $5.5 million to support a new faculty chair in robotics and three graduate fellowships at the university.

When contacted Monday, Uber referred the Tribune-Review to a September statement by CEO Travis Kalanick, in which he said, “We're pumped to be part of a growing innovation ecosystem in Pittsburgh that includes world-leading research institutions and companies, as well as an increasing number of startups.”

“Uber is a great addition to Pittsburgh. ... We are excited to see another significant technology presence in Pittsburgh,” Moore said.

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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