How the Pittsburgh robotics community answered COVID-19 challenges

Jun 1, 2020 | News

Region’s collaborative culture contributed to project success, innovation spirit

By Keith Shaw

When the world responded to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, roboticists and engineers in the Pittsburgh community approached the issue in the way they knew best – they began collaborating to solve problems. 

Over the past few months, innovations and new projects that utilized robotics or other components were developed by individuals within the community or by robotics companies themselves. Whether developing alternative, low-cost ventilators, utilizing company 3D printers to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) face masks for health workers, or utilizing autonomous cleaning robots to disinfect large areas, companies stepped up to take on the challenge posed by the pandemic. Even companies that didn’t directly create new projects collaborated internally to provide support and communicate with employees affected by stay-at-home orders and business closings. 

While collaboration and innovation is not exclusive to the Pittsburgh robotics community, there are some unique qualities of the people, culture and region that many within the industry have recognized as a benefit to their business. 

“People in Pittsburgh generally work hard, and people in Pittsburgh are generally friendly, chatty individuals,” said Howie Choset, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. “I go all over the world for work – I’m originally from New York and am proud of my heritage — but wherever I go, there’s always someone from Pittsburgh and that person is almost always an instant friend.”

The friendly nature of its people, the Pittsburgh blue-collar mentality, and the establishment of a collaborative culture from Carnegie Mellon are all contributing factors in the region’s success, Choset added. This spirit of collaboration contributed to the Covid-19 response.

Choset was one of four researchers at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine developing a new, low-cost ventilator to address potential future ventilator shortages. The Roboventilator device aims to fill the gap between expensive and sophisticated mechanical ventilators used by intensive care units and current low-cost alternatives that require manual air pumping from healthcare workers. In addition to Choset, team members included Keith Cook, a professor of biomedical engineering at CMU; Jason Rose, an assistant professor of medicine and bioengineering at Pitt, and Lu Li, a project scientist at the CMU Biorobotics Lab.

“I think I’m a collaborative guy, and this team, the core people who are running the show, are even more collaborative than me,” Choset explained. While he knew Li from the biorobotics lab, Choset said he didn’t even know the other two until they began collaborating on the ventilator project. “I didn’t know them a month ago, and now I speak to Jason multiple times a day,” he said. “And Keith [Cook] has been nothing but gracious every step of the way, he minimizes his own contribution to make sure we’re all happy with our big contributions, and he’s been instrumental in getting us together. It’ been a pleasure to work with these people and make new friends this way.”

Personal networks

Cultivating contacts and personal networks was a method used in another alternative ventilator project, led by Mike Formica, the president of Pittsburgh’s Neya Systems. The Pittsburgh CNC Vent project was a rapidly scalable emergency ventilator designed for Covid-19 patients, with a goal of answering the problem of how to produce one million ventilators in two months or less, given a limited supply chain and other disruptions. Collaborating with officials from Pittsburgh companies, hospitals and venture capital associations, Formica and his team created a prototype very quickly.

“Basically I made a bunch of calls to a bunch of people saying this could be a huge waste of time, but would you be willing to contribute time right now to try to come up with a solution on how do you make a million ventilators in a month?”, Formica explained. “I think it is kind of a Pittsburgh thing – maybe other cities think like this too – but within a day, I got half a dozen people willing to contribute and chime in, and a laundry list of other people who wanted to help.”

After developing the prototype, the team discovered the need for ventilators was not as severe as earlier estimates, so for the moment the project is on standby. But Formica said the project can rapidly ramp up if needed.

“[This project] reaffirmed what I already knew, which is that there is still tremendous manufacturing capacity in this country,” he said. In working with local machine shops and 3D printing capabilities to develop the prototype, “There’s a lot of capacity that’s untapped and under-utilized that we can all be leveraging. I made a phone call, sent over some drawings, met for 10 minutes with the masks on, and said, ‘This is what I need.’ A couple of days later I had prototype parts in my hands that were very high quality and would have worked extremely well for this. There’s definitely more than just the 3D printers that are sitting in every university.”

Formica, who grew up in Philadelphia but came to the University of Pittsburgh for his undergraduate studies, said the region and its history does contribute to the collaborative nature of its residents. “Pittsburgh took a big hit back in the ‘70s when the steel industry collapsed,” Formica said. “Obviously the city was gutted, and as the city rebuilt, I think there’s been a bit of an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality. People in Pittsburgh realize if we don’t help each other, no one else is going to come help us either.” 

He added that the city has a real neighborhood feel that fosters working together. “I can pick up the phone and call someone and say, ‘Hey, do you mind working at night to help me with this thing, because it’s the right thing to do’, Formica said. “Everybody has a healthy respect for what everybody else does, which is just kind of ingrained. There’s very much a community, and it has a small town feel to the city.”

Intersection of disciplines, plus humility

Collaboration and custom development is the strength of Carnegie Robotics, which has developed sensors and systems to address technical gaps in a range of industries, from defense to agriculture to autonomous mobile robotics. One of its latest projects is a collaboration with the Pittsburgh International Airport, in which Carnegie incorporates ultraviolet light disinfection technology on robotic floor scrubbers (developed by Denmark’s Nilfisk) being tested at the airport. After the scrubbers have cleaned the floor, the system’s UVC fixture releases the ultraviolet rays onto the floor to sanitize it.

This example and other collaborations with robotics companies in Pittsburgh showcase the region’s combination of different disciplines, including information technology, industrial machining, as well as humility, said Daniel Beaven, the CFO at Carnegie Robotics.

“Pittsburgh has a legacy of an industrial base with people that understand physicality and machining that is great,” said Beaven. “There’s a certain humility to Pittsburgh and the reconciliation between the information technology and the physical world, and it’s got that humbling impact.”

Helping others 

At the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), researchers work on improving the mobility and function of people with disabilities through robotics and advanced engineering. The team recently received a $10,000 emergency grant from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation to help improve the lives of people affected by spinal cord injuries (SCI).

The team was able to provide members of the SCI community with online gift cards for grocery delivery from Giant Eagle or volunteer deliveries from HERL employees. Michael Lain, a communications specialist with HERL, said that those with SCI are more likely to be “stuck at home” than the general public during the pandemic. “Many are immunocompromised and/or have respiratory problems – two things we know that put people at much greater risk for severe Covid-19 symptoms,” said Lain. “We know that the world’s elderly population is in especially grave danger, but we don’t often hear about our population of people with physical disabilities. People with disabilities risk not only the worst symptoms from the virus, but also being left out of discussions about treatment and prevention of the virus.” 

Lain said the Pittsburgh community has come into its own as a national hub for robotics within the last decade. At HERL, the company is contributing startups such as pathVu, which uses robotic measuring tools to assess the roughness of public pathways, and Atimize, which takes the group’s robotics experience to create wheelchairs that run solely on compressed air. “One of the best things about working in this technology hub is that all of us learn from each other, yet strive to outdo each other,” said Lain. “There’s a subtle sense of competition, but it’s friendly. That’s what pushes us harder and helps us do more. At the same time, we can all enjoy each other’s success.”

Joel Reed, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network, said he was not surprised to hear about the stories of collaboration from the robotics community in Pittsburgh. “We are one of the top three regions for talent, innovation and robotics development worldwide,” said Reed. “But given how we had to reinvent ourselves from our deeply industrial past, we have a highly connected community. The PRN wants to extend that community, strengthen our connections with the world, and together accelerate the adoption of beneficial robotic solutions.”

Additional projects

Beyond these projects, several companies noted additional efforts around the pandemic response, including:

  • Near Earth Autonomy utilized its 3D printers to help manufacture and donate face shields to frontline healthcare workers. In addition, the company began treating employees and their families to dinner from local restaurants, with an internal Slack channel for people to post photos from the dinners, as well as a communications channel for employees if they need additional support from the company.
  • BirdBrain Technologies created some new resources for at-home students that want to learn robotics, including free live classes, a reading list of computing-themed books, and a set of live-streamed robots that anyone can program, free, over the Internet. “Some of these are sitting in my home office and I get a kick out of how frequently they’ve been ‘coming to life’ lately,” said Tom Lauwers, founder and CEO of BirdBrain Technologies.
  • RE2 Robotics has been fabricating face shields for small- and midsized clinics in collaboration with PPE Connect PGH and a coalition of local universities and manufacturers. RE2 used its 3D-printing capabilities to create parts for face shields that are then distributed to community clinics, nursing homes, and independent facilities in the Pittsburgh region. “We currently have five 3D printers running around the clock to create parts for face shields,” said RE2 Robotics President and CEO Jorgen Pedersen in a press release. “I am grateful that we can use our equipment and skills to give back to our city’s healthcare workers and our community.” (read more here)

Keith Shaw is a freelance technology journalist and former editor-in-chief at Robotics Business Review. He has covered robotics and the technology industry for more than 20 years.

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About the Pittsburgh Robotics Network

The Pittsburgh Robotics Network is dedicated to the growth and promotion of Pittsburgh’s robotics companies and research institutions. PRN members use robotics to make the world a better place and benefit Pittsburgh through attracting investment, new talent to the region, providing a point of contact to Pittsburgh companies, and supporting local suppliers and companies.