Thursday, September 24, 2009


--The Second installment of a three-part series.

Do you remember running down to your living room as a child on Christmas morning, being excited at seeing a pile of gifts while hoping for more toys than sweaters or underwear?

On Monday, the City of Pittsburgh rolled out the red carpet for visiting media from around the world. While we at "Pittsburgh's Black and Gold" didn't have to travel nearly as far as (everyone else) there, your dogged reporter managed to attend despite having only a distinct Pittsburgh accent. My thinking was that it would really be interesting to see what the leaders of three of Pittsburgh's major institutions had to say (see yesterday's column) and also to see what the visiting media thought of our city (they loved it by the way). But the really big treat would be getting to see the "toys" that CMU is developing over at their cozy confines, just a stones throw from the sprawling environment that is the Pitt campus. Oh, and I wasn't disappointed either and it wasn't even December 25th!

I had my choice of several tours such as Children's Hospital, several UPMC and Pitt research facilities. However, I chose CMU's Robotics Institute and followed it up with a tour of the new Entertainment Technology Center that's been built on the old Jones and Laughlin Steel plant along the Mon River. The result was one of the most amazing days I've ever had. Believe me, if the visiting journalists are even half as impressed as i was, Pittsburgh's going to be getting a lot of phenomenal press. Don't worry about the disruptions going on now, this event is going to pay gi-normous dividends for the city.

Since 1979, when it established the nation's first Robotics Institute, CMU has been developing many different robot applications. Some look very practical. Others are a result of taking on a challenge such as, "Do you think we could ever get a computer to balance itself on a basketball?" That sort of thing. But it's all research and all very, very, valuable towards future projects.

ABOVE: The "Balance Bot" can take a shove and keep standing, by  balancing on a basketball! This technology could prove to be invaluable someday for the many bars on the South Side.

Since we have all been raised with a good deal of Hollywood special effects throughout our lives, in retrospect some of these creations looked almost primitive. But the difference is that these are robots that really work!

The first thing that caught my eye was a tricked-up car named "Boss". This s.u.v. had recently won $2 million in a competition for devising a self-navigating vehicle. Those smart guys over at CMU's "Tartan Racing Team" brought home the bacon on this one. The logos splattered all over "Boss" bore silent testimony to the level of cooperation between institutions that this adventure required.

ABOVE: "Boss" is a "tricked-up" s.u.v. that brought a lot of bacon home to the CMU campus. The Parkway East could use a ton of these every day.

Inside the display area, informational areas were set up featuring CMU's other toys. One of the most compelling was the "Snake-bot". It looked like a bunch of motors that had been screwed together, but it moved exactly the way a snake does and it even had a very bright halogen light for a "head". The intended purpose of this bot is to be used in search and rescue missions for earthquake victims. However, it is also being miniaturized for use in heart operations! It was unbelievable watching this "snake" climb up a piece of slick pvc pipe in exactly the same way that a real snake would!

ABOVE: The "Snake Bot" just blew me away. Watching it climb up a pole was practically a surreal moment, something you'd expect to see in "Terminator 4". UPMC is currently working on an antivenim. 

I was shown a vehicle that is programmed to travel through an apple orchard to retrieve boxes of apples that have been harvested. This is already being field tested at Soergel Orchards in Pittsburgh.

ABOVE: The technology behind vision and recognition is being bridged by the techno-wizards at Carnegie Mellon.

ABOVE: This "harvest bot" can travel an apple orchard and pick up stock along the way. This vehicle can see and is not migratory.

ABOVE: CMUers David Gump and John Thornton stand in front of a vehicle that can recognize shapes.

Just in the nick of time, a very friendly "domestic bot" came around with a serving tray of fruit. CMU thinks of everything! Then there was the robot that would be able to lead you around a hospital where you practically need a GPS now in some instances.

ABOVE: I was ready to order one of these to bring the beers around during the Steeler games, but alas, they're not quite ready for the public...yet.

I even had a chance to meet the "rocket scientists" who are heading up CMU's "Red Rover" team. The exciting competition they're involved in has a little prize attached to it...$20 million from Google. All they have to do is be the first non-government team to land a rover on the Moon! It's that easy!!!

I asked two of the team participants if CMU is planning on launching their rocket from The Point, but they smiled and shook their heads no, sadly. They're really missing a great p.r. opportunity there. The plan is to actually revisit the actual site of the original Apollo 11 lunar landing. According to Boris (great rocket scientist name BTW) Sofman, a PhD student at CMU, the original footprints in the dust will still be there since there is no wind! But seriously, didn't you think that they filmed the landing on a Hollywood set?

ABOVE: Plans are changing so quickly that the wall poster (above) manufactured six months ago is already out of date. Plans call for a May, 2011 launch from Florida. CMU will also "retrieve" an additional $5 million for traveling 5 km, visiting a historic artifact, surviving the night, finding water and having diverse team membership. According to "Astrobotic Technology", a new CMU spinoff company, "The expedition intends to land about a kilometer from the Apollo 11 site, travel 550m to win the Google prize, and then proceed on to witness one of humanity's greatest achievements."

ABOVE: (Left) Bradford Neuman and Boris Sofman (right) pose with two rover models.

ABOVE: A collection of lunar vehicles. Solar power should be plentiful on this side of the Moon. CMU is well advised to avoid the "Dark side of the Moon."

According to CMU's Bradford Neuman, the team is really anxious to see what type of damage has been done to the rover that has been sitting on the moon for 30 years. With no atmosphere to protect it, they want to find out how miniature meteorites (that normally burn up in our atmosphere) will affect equipment in space that has been exposed to them for long periods of time. These are bullets traveling thousands of miles per hour.

As I said folks, this was really interesting stuff. It might not affect what you and I are going to do tomorrow, but it certainly can have a tremendous impact on the direction that our space program takes in the future and how the human race one day goes about space travel.

But this next little guy was stealing the show. Designed to be used in libraries or in classrooms, he was a "story-telling bot" complete with voice inflection, facial expression and full body movement. They couldn't get me to leave here, I just kept asking for "one more story, pleeeaaasse".

ABOVE LEFT & RIGHT: "Anubis" was certainly the convincing storyteller. If every library had one of these, story hour would be standing room only. Of course then kids will stop reading altogether.

Overall, the amount of genius at work at CMU is way beyond comprehension. After seeing these expensive "toys" revealed, I realized that Pittsburgh's future is quite secure. We may not have a booming robotic manufacturing industry here now, but you can bet that sooner rather than later that there are going to be CMU devised robots rolling off the assembly lines in places like Homestead, Braddock and Monessen very soon. Pittsburgh will one day become the robot supplier to the world. We have the infrastructure, the workforce, the available sites and the world will supply a never-ending hunger for more and more robots (see "Terminators I, II, III).

I'm certainly glad that I got a chance to view CMU's toybox. It's a rare opportunity indeed when one gets to peer into the future and realize that it's not a computer animation, it's the real thing and it's right here!!!