TOPICS > Science

In Pittsburgh, Robots Help Rebuild Struggling Economy

April 23, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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As Pittsburgh continues to rebuild itself after the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s, a technology industry is emerging. Tom Bearden reports on how engineers in the city are developing robots for everything from elderly care to military operations.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, a different kind of story about Pittsburgh. For the past two nights, we’ve looked at how the changing economic picture there has affected the voters.

Tonight, Tom Bearden of the NewsHour’s Science Unit reports on a new industry developing in and around our spotlight city.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: For the Stemmler family of western Pennsylvania, the future is now.

JOHN BERTOTY, Blueroof Technologies: The big eye is actually an I.P. camera, Internet protocol. And what that does is take a picture of everybody that comes up on the porch.

Come on in. And…

ROBOT: Front door open.

TOM BEARDEN: After decades of struggling with disabilities, the family is preparing to move into a home that promises to make their lives much easier.

ROBOT: Burglar alarm off.

TOM BEARDEN: D.J. Stemmler has spinal cord injuries. Her son, Sergei, has cerebral palsy.

JOHN BERTOTY: We’ve taken the house and used technology systems to make the whole house into a robot. It senses things that robots do. It reacts to those inputs that it receives. It chooses some type of action, whether that’s turning lights on or off, or turning the water off, or calling the police, or whatever it’s doing, and that’s really what robots do.

TOM BEARDEN: The Stemmler’s new home is in McKeesport, a town decimated by the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. Forty thousand jobs evaporated. Most of the laid-off workers moved away.

It left McKeesport with one of the nation’s most elderly populations. John Bertoty says that makes this the perfect spot for his company, Blueroof Technologies, to build new robotic homes that can take care of the elderly and disabled.

JOHN BERTOTY: Say your mom gets up at night and we need to know that. Well, this is a system that will determine that.

Robot house helps families

TOM BEARDEN: D.J. Stemmler's biggest worry has been her mother, who suffers from advanced Alzheimer's disease.

D.J. STEMMLER: I think my concerns around safety and around monitoring will be addressed fully by the house. You know, I have Sergei with me, and then I also have my mother, who has Alzheimer's.

And being able to monitor their medication, monitor who comes to the door, who goes into the house, what they're doing while they're in the house, is really important to me.

TOM BEARDEN: The robot house automatically reminds Alzheimer's patients, like D.J.'s mother, when and how to take their medications.

JOHN BERTOTY: When she pulls the drawer, we'll build this into one of your cabinets.

ROBOT: Medication door open.

JOHN BERTOTY: You notice that we've recorded the fact that it's open, so we know the she got it. And you'll notice that one of those is red. That's the one that she's supposed to take. Now, when you pick up the one...

ROBOT: Thanks for getting your medication. Now don't forget to take a glass of water and swallow all of your pills. If you don't, I'm going to have to call the caregiver.

JOHN BERTOTY: If Mom turns the water on, forgets to turn it off, we can have the system call you on a cellphone.

D.J. STEMMLER: It will be like having a full-time attendant following her around and, you know, helping us know what she's doing, and how she's safe, and if she needs help.

Increasing quality of life

TOM BEARDEN: The McKeesport experiment is taking place on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, an emerging center for the science of robotics.

The Quality of Life Technology Center developed many of the McKeesport devices. It's a joint project of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Takeo Kanade is the director.

What do you mean by "quality of life technology"?

TAKEO KANADE, Director, Quality of Life Technology Center: To help people to live independently, because, after all, live independently is the highest quality of life. Everybody wants that; nobody wants to depend on other people.

TOM BEARDEN: The lab, a National Science Foundation engineering research center, is taking robotics to the next level by developing artificial intelligence that can predict a person's intentions.

First, the robot house -- or "smart home" -- learns the day-to-day patterns of a dementia patient. It can then intervene if the person forgets what they originally intended to do.

TAKEO KANADE: The system is trying to guess the future behavior of this person. Where is he going to go? The blue regions are the regions that he would go.

Take, for example, suppose you're about to do cooking egg. If you have dementia, sometimes you just forget and freeze, because you forget what you have done, what you're about to do.

Now, if the system is clever enough, then the system said, "OK, the next thing to do is approach to oven and put the pan on it and begin to cook."

TOM BEARDEN: Kanade sees the demand for smart houses increasing as the baby boomer population ages. The center is also developing a barcode scanner for blind shoppers to help identify products and prices...

ROBOT: Item found window. Cheese-It baked snack crackers.

TOM BEARDEN: ... wheelchairs with armband sensors that monitor vital signs, and an intel robot that helps with everyday tasks.

TAKEO KANADE: The robot has to have the capability to adapt to the particular situation, which way it should approach the object.

Steel city or robo-city?

TOM BEARDEN: Kanade's work represents just one piece of Pittsburgh's robotic landscape. Dubbed "Roboburgh" by the Wall Street Journal, the Steel City has opened its arms to robotic technologies.

This 14-acre former steel industry site is being rebuilt to provide new commercial space for robotic businesses.

Bill Thomasmeyer heads a nonprofit group for robotic companies in Pittsburgh. We caught up with him at a RoboBusiness convention, where the robots on display can do everything from snake up a pole for exploration to drag people from burning buildings.

BILL THOMASMEYER, Executive Vice President, Technology Collaborative: Behind the tradition in Pittsburgh with the steel industry is this great tradition of complex engineering, being able to manufacture complex things. And when you combine the automated intelligence and the intelligent aspects of research at Carnegie Mellon with that great tradition of complex engineering, you end up with robotic solutions.

DESIGNER: What we have here we call Mine Crawler.

TOM BEARDEN: Carnegie Mellon University's Robotic Institute was established 25 years ago. Matt Mason is the director.

MATT MASON, Carnegie Mellon University: For us, robotics is the idea that machines can be more like living things, that they can have a purpose, that they can have awareness of the world around them, and they can make things happen in the physical world.

DESIGNER: The design on this robot in particular is very solar- and thermal-oriented.

TOM BEARDEN: Filled with robots for space exploration, military and civilian use, a robot even greets visitors at the door.

ROBOT: The Robotics Education Lab is in 3206 Newell-Simon Hall. Would you like directions?

Robots, made in Pennsylvania

TOM BEARDEN: It seems like everywhere one looks, Pittsburgh's steel heritage provides the backdrop for robotic research. Here, Carnegie Mellon turned an old LTV steel mill into what they call "Robot City," a place where autonomous vehicles, like the award-winning "Boss," are tested.

MATT MASON: Some day you'll be able to sit in your car and do other things. It will mean that your kids can go to the rehearsal at school without you. It means that elderly will still be able to get around, even when maybe they shouldn't be driving.

It means that you can work during your commute, or read a book, or just admire the scenery, and it means your car, it can go look for a parking spot, it can drop you off.

TOM BEARDEN: And located in a century-old foundry is NREC, the National Robotics Engineering Center, where both civilian and military robotic ventures are being developed.

JOHN BARES, National Robotics Engineering Center: They're watching how the sensors see all the other barrels and whether they would have told the robot to drive around them.

TOM BEARDEN: This robot is designed to travel deep behind enemy lines on reconnaissance missions without direct human control.

JOHN BARES: There's a military need right now, obviously, to reduce the head count, reduce the number of people that we need in all kinds of activities, not just warfighting. And that means now. The need is immediate.

TOM BEARDEN: Already, thousands of simple robots are being used every day in Iraq.

Robotic technology is advancing so rapidly that new devices are likely to touch nearly everyone's life in the near future. And many of them may well bear the tag "Made in Pennsylvania."