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Pittsburgh firms on front line of robotics technology revolution

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, 10:42 p.m.
Tom Lauwers, chief roboticist with BirdBrain Technologies, demonstrates a robotic model of one of Pittsburgh's inclines made with a Hummingbird Kit — a robotics kit that allows school-age kids to design their own robots — at RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Tom Lauwers, chief roboticist with BirdBrain Technologies, demonstrates a robotic model of one of Pittsburgh's inclines made with a Hummingbird Kit — a robotics kit that allows school-age kids to design their own robots — at RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, tries out virtual reality glasses while talking with Marc Zinck of AUTODESK, a company that makes tools for design, at RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, tries out virtual reality glasses while talking with Marc Zinck of AUTODESK, a company that makes tools for design, at RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
Aaron Nicely, 37, of West Mifflin and a representative for RE2 operates the company's 2 Arm Highly Dexterous Manipulation System at RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Aaron Nicely, 37, of West Mifflin and a representative for RE2 operates the company's 2 Arm Highly Dexterous Manipulation System at RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

RoBotany's vertical garden, tended to completely by robots, can grow a pound of cilantro, basil, arugula or baby spinach a day in space once occupied by a conference table.

HuMoTech just landed a contract with the Department of Defense to use its robotic technology to help disabled veterans choose the right prosthetic leg.

And BirdBrain Technologies has developed a robotic kit that empowers children around the world to build their own robots, learning about coding, engineering and design along the way.

These companies and about 40 more make up the emerging robotic industry in Pittsburgh. Several Pittsburgh robotic companies showed off their technology Wednesday during the first RoboPGH Day at Carnegie Robotics in Lawrenceville.

“Today the world is experiencing the emergence of the next generation of robotics technology,” U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said at the event. “It's not just transforming industry. It's transforming our society.”

The Pittsburgh Robotics Network organized RoboPGH Day ahead of President Obama's visit Thursday to host the White House Frontiers Conference at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. The president will speak as part of a panel about brain science and medical information.

The talks and panel discussions are closed to the public, but everything will be live streamed at frontiersconference.org. An exhibit hall featuring innovations related to topics at the conference is open to the public. The hall will be open from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the first floor of Alumni Hall on Fifth Avenue in Oakland.

More than $1 billion in federal funding is funneled into Pittsburgh-area universities and research institutions each year, according to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

When Obama took office in 2009, Uber wasn't a company. Now when he visits Pittsburgh, he could go for a ride in a self-driving Uber.

“That revolutionary technology was created in large parts at Carnegie Mellon University,” CMU President Subra Suresh said at a panel discussion Wednesday previewing the Frontiers Conference with Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher; John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith.

“Even more revolutionary technology and innovations are just around the corner,” Suresh said. “President Obama knows that many of them will be developed here.”

Suresh said Southwestern Pennsylvania has emerged as the heart of what is being called the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. It's the convergence of additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, the cyber world, the physical world, the biological world and data.

Gallagher said Pittsburgh hasn't reinvented itself during its recent innovation explosion but is building on a history of groundbreaking technologies. Pittsburgh's legacy of steel and aluminum manufacturing was founded on innovative processes that revolutionized those industries, Gallagher said.

“We never stopped innovating,” Gallagher said. “We have always been a driving force in technology. So the question really is not about the revolution. It is what will our chapter in the story look like.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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