Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network.

Robots are everywhere in Pittsburgh. But except for the occasional self-driving car seen on the streets, people might not know how central they are to Pittsburgh’s current (and future) economy.

“So the three top robotics communities in the world are Boston, Pittsburgh and the Bay Area,” said Joel Reed, executive director of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network. “And Pittsburgh is either number one or two depending on about how the debate of MIT versus CMU goes.”

At a Tuesday morning gathering on the rooftop deck of the TRYP Hotel — in the middle of “Robotics Row,” the Strip/Lawrenceville tech cluster with a robot population that is rapidly approaching its human population — the Pittsburgh Robotics Network began to flex its automated muscles to turn the city into the “Robotics Capital of the World.” Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Martial Hebert, dean of the School of Computer Sciences at Carnegie Mellon, addressed a gathering of Pittsburgh’s major players in robotics.

The Pittsburgh Robotics Network celebrated reaching 100 members — ranging from self-driving car giant Aurora to robotic arm developers RE2 Robotics — and receiving a $125,000 grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to support its continued growth.

Photo courtesy of RE2 Robotics.

Since 2012, $3.3 billion in venture capital and private equity has been invested in Pittsburgh robotics firms, with nearly 600 patents filed. The Pittsburgh Robotics Network estimates that the region’s robotics cluster supports 7,000 jobs, and more than 45,000 technology workers at large — growing 300 percent since 2011.

“Pittsburgh’s back on the world’s stage again,” said Peduto. “And it’s not because of robotics. It’s because of innovation. It was technology that helped Pittsburgh be able to brush off the rust, to be able to stand back up.”

The reasons for the robotics boom are many, but all roads lead back to Carnegie Mellon University. CMU founded the world’s first doctoral program in robotics in 1988 and leads the world’s largest robotics research organization, the Robotics Institute, which includes the National Robotics Engineering Center. Research on self-driving cars began here in the ‘80s, which is the main reason why the city is a world-class hub for the technology today.

Aurora Driver integrated into a Chrysler Pacifica. Photo courtesy of Aurora.

Of course, there are a lot of cities that would like to be the robotics capital of the world.

“There are other regions that are emerging, like Austin and Denver, and one that we respect a great deal is the country of Denmark,” said Reed. “But I think Pittsburgh stands out when you look at its breadth and depth … We’re all trying to develop the autonomous robot industry because it really is the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0.”

Pittsburgh has 18 different industry robotics “verticals,” where it has grown specialties, including agriculture, mining and space exploration.

Self-driving car company Argo AI gets a lot of attention, employing 500 people in its Pittsburgh headquarters and 1,500 worldwide. But there are also less well-known anchors such as Omnicell, which supplies automation to pharmacies.

“They also offer a great example of perseverance as a company,” said Reed. “They grew out of a company called Automated Healthcare, which was one of the first few startups to come out of CMU.”

The robotics ecosystem in Pittsburgh has evolved enough that it doesn’t just need specialized engineers from the University of Pittsburgh and CMU.

“When I was at IAM Robotics, one of the hardest positions to hire for was a service technician,” said Reed. “We needed someone who could, you know, handle a wrench, but also work on a command line, and we need them to travel — and that’s really difficult to hire for. So we believe that with the growth of these kinds of jobs in service, assembly, sales, marketing — all the functions that come on the commercial side, we really can create more opportunities for a broader percentage of the overall community.”

As a group, they’re aware that not everybody benefits equally from the growth in robotics.

“You know there are diversity challenges in technology in general,” explained Reed. “And robotics is not immune to that. That said, I can say sincerely that the leaders of our businesses care very deeply about this issue — and maybe that sets Pittsburgh apart, quite frankly, because we are a smaller, tight-knit community.”

The R.K. Mellon Foundation support is going to play a role in addressing that.

“Not only for economic development but to start developing pathways for underserved populations where we have economic, gender and racial inequalities,” noted Reed. “We don’t have all of the answers, I have to say. But what we are going to do from the start, is to talk to these communities, and try to get them involved with what we’re doing.”

Could we have a future where people think of robots first, when they think of Pittsburgh (and not football)?

“If you work in social media or internet technology, you’re always going through the Bay Area once a year,” said Reed. “And it should be that if you work in robotics and autonomous systems, you should be coming through Pittsburgh once a year.

“Pittsburgh is at the forefront. And just like we were in the first and second industrial revolutions, we are leading this one.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.