The New Boomtowns

While San Diego reaps the success of its biotech expertise, Pittsburgh might resemble a San Diego of 20 years ago. But instead of biotech, the city by the three rivers is placing a major bet on robotics. Pittsburgh is already home to two of the world's leading robotics research labs: Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute and the NASA-funded National Robotics Engineering Consortium. Carnegie Mellon offers the world's only doctoral degree in robotics. In addition, tech and management centers at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University add to a healthy mix of potential brainpower.

Pandora (top) and Cyclops (right) are reconnaissance robots developed at Carnegie Mellon University.  Pandora, designed for rough terrain, is expected to have firefighting, police, and military applications.  Cyclops, which is only 4 inches in diameter, incorporates audio and video sensor systems and can maneuver in small spaces.

The local robotics industry is still tiny, but growing. There are 90 companies, most of which have existed for less than 10 years, with total revenues of no more than $400 million. But Pittsburgh is excited by the potential. The management consulting firm of Arthur D. Little forecasts that robotics for agricultural machinery, mining, and cargo handling could represent a $2 billion industry in the next decade. Robots in construction, health care, and home work represent an even greater potential. One problem hindering robotics is that there are four distinct technologies behind turning simple machines into devices that can act independently. There's the technical side of manipulators and controls; sensors for tactile, visual, and aural responses; artificial intelligence for the machine to think on its own; and artificial realities such as virtual speech and feedback to interact with humans.

Many of the Pittsburgh firms have designed single-purpose devices to solve specific problems rather than focus on the core technology developments necessary to lead to further breakthroughs. That's where the universities hope to play a role. "The private sector has to get bigger now, but it will only do so with a lot of fuel from the university side," says Jim Osborn, director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Initiative, a nonprofit group designed to promote the industry locally. "People are coming here because it's one of the best places to get an education and they can help robotics make a big play as an industry."

In 1979, Carnegie Mellon started its robotics institute with a $5 million grant from Westinghouse, an appliance maker interested in factory automation. Today, the institute receives roughly $30 million for research from a variety of public and private sources. Carnegie Mellon encourages companies to become an affiliate of various research programs, including computer-assisted surgery to space robotics. Companies can also sponsor research projects directly. To date, the university sector deserves credit for the pioneering work that has been done. "The reason that Pittsburgh is a hotbed for robotics is because the industrial automation experts who are here are alumni of the universities," says Bob Gleeson, associate professor of business at Duquesne University. One firm that embodies the potential of Pittsburgh robotics is Automatika, started by two former professors at Carnegie Mellon. While both founders received their doctoral degrees at MIT, they were sufficiently attracted by Carnegie Mellon's strength in robotics to pursue teaching there. After working as faculty members, the two spun out their firm in 1995. Today, they employ five people directly and have seven other consultants, all with Carnegie Mellon backgrounds.

Without the support of the university, says Automatika president Noellette Conway, it would have been impossible to form the company. Most universities restrict the amount of outside consulting that a faculty member can do, but Carnegie Mellon encouraged Conway to spend 20 percent of her time working on nonuniversity projects. And as an entrepreneur with links to the university, she is able to take sponsored research from the labs and bring it to market, paying Carnegie Mellon a percentage of the profits. While it's too early to know whether Pittsburgh's gamble will pay off, it's a good bet that in the knowledge era, many other cities will be looking inside their campus laboratories with hopes that universities can help revitalize their regions.

Warren Cohen is a freelance writer living in New York City.