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North Hills Monthly

Information Technology is the “IT” Industry in Pittsburgh

Aug 31, 2018 11:41AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

CMU’s Robotics Institute's Snakebot was recently named Ground Rescue Robot of the Year.

The Carnegie Science Center’s roboworld® exhibit never fails to engage visitors’ imagination in the futuristic world of robotics. But don’t be fooled—the future is now, and it’s a good time to be in the field of information technology (IT)—especially robotics. 

The most recent Business Investment Scorecard, compiled 

by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, an affiliate of the 

Allegheny Conference on Community Development, indicated that IT/Robotics topped the charts as the most active sector for deals among the region’s key sectors in 2017.

With 1,872 new jobs generated over the year, IT/Robotics led all sectors for job creation. Thirty percent of those jobs were in the field of robotics. Robotics companies that expanded their local presence include Aethon, Aptiv, Bossa Nova Robotics and Near Earth Autonomy, among others. Technology companies that lead the way in autonomous vehicles—Uber, Argo AI, Delphi and Aurora—all call Pittsburgh home and are another part of this economic growth.

A significant factor in making the region so desirable, according to Jim Futrell, vice president for market research at Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, is Carnegie Mellon University. “CMU has world-class capability and is the research leader for autonomous vehicles,” Futrell explained. 

Martial Hebert, director of CMU’s Robotics Institute, said a number of robotics companies in the area are in fact created by CMU graduates and faculty. Autonomous vehicle projects began at CMU in 1985-1986; fast-forward 30 years later, and many of the resulting companies are either led by or have significant participation by CMU folks, Hebert explained. Indeed, three major players in the world of self-driving vehicles—Uber, Argo AI and Aurora—all have ties to CMU.

The culture of Pittsburgh is another piece of the puzzle, said Phil Cynar, senior communications specialist for the Allegheny Conference. The critical mass of talented people is a draw. “People want to be here to work alongside great minds,” Cynar explained. “Pittsburgh is a place where you can find your place and go further, faster.”

Hebert said that the Pittsburgh region offers a friendly environment for start-up companies. Particularly when compared to areas like Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh has the advantage of being a less expensive and easier place to live and offers a steady supply of students and talent. Additionally, Hebert explained, “Pittsburgh has always had strong support from the city government—for robotics in particular and technology in general.”

Innovation Works on the North Side is another reason the environment for entrepreneurs is so positive. As the most active seed-stage investor in southwestern Pennsylvania and one of the most active nationally, its portfolio of robotics companies is a virtual who’s who of big names in robotics.

Rich Lunak, president and CEO of Innovation Works, said, “Innovation Works is proud to support our region’s growing robotics startup community in industries as diverse as manufacturing, healthcare, transportation and agriculture.” Lunak added that Pittsburgh has the talent, supply chain and other key resources these companies need to scale successfully.

As Lunak indicated, the robotics industry is broader than self-driving cars. One recent success story out of CMU’s Robotics Institute is Snakebot. The multi-jointed, search-and-rescue robot was named Ground Rescue Robot of the Year by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR). The snake-like robot was used to search for survivors after the September 2017 earthquake in Mexico City.

Hebert said that the larger project—focusing on how to make flexible, agile, snake-like robots that can get to hard-to-reach places—has a variety of practical applications. Such robots can access pipes, scaffolding, the inside of an airplane wing; even the human body. CMU researchers have created a device small enough to be used for surgery, and doctors at UPMC now have another tool in their arsenal to perform complex surgery, such as removing cancerous tumors, without incisions.

Hebert explained that the next phase in the evolution of robotics will be making robotics accessible to more people, what those in the industry call the “democratization of robotics.” The idea is to lower the barrier to entry by making robotics more available. For example, robotics could make complex medical procedures possible for people living in remote areas or lesser-developed countries. The development of modular robotics could make it possible for people with limited training to build robots. The result is that small and medium enterprises could develop their own robotics projects—similar to the way that app-creator tools now allow individuals with little to no coding ability to create innovative apps.

The growth of robotics already has implications in fields as diverse as agriculture, education, entertainment, healthcare and artificial intelligence. Becky Thatcher, a market research analyst for Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, said, “In 2015, the number of companies entering the Pittsburgh-area marketplace increased 80 percent from the previous year.  To date, autonomous vehicles, healthcare, and industrial/warehouse are the largest employment sectors in our regional robotics industry.”

Industry growth also means more jobs—and not just for computer science graduates. 

“Workers don’t have to be engineers, but they will need CTE (career and technical education) training,” Cynar said. A data-driven report, Inflection Point: Supply, Demand and the Future of Work in the Pittsburgh Region, put out by the Allegheny Conference, shows that some of the most in-demand jobs between now and 2025 will require CTE’s specialized education rather than four-year college degrees. Trends indicate a high demand for workers skilled in technology, and individuals trained in industrial maintenance or mechatronics will be an important part of the region’s future workforce.

As growth in the robotics industry continues, the region benefits. Hebert, a Pittsburgh resident since 1984, has witnessed the city’s evolution firsthand. He credits the banking and healthcare industries as well as high-tech sectors with changing the city over the past 30 years.

“It’s amazing how neighborhoods have been revitalized, and robotics is a piece of that. Companies like Google, Facebook and Bosch bring high-paying jobs,” Hebert said. “From a psychological standpoint, it brings up the spirit and helps people look forward.”

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