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Published: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Updated: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 11:09


roboworld exhibit

Robots are cool, no doubt about it. Whether they are humanoids like the T-800 from the Terminator series or something more simplistic, like a Roomba, they spark our imaginations and make our lives safer, easier, and more efficient. The Carnegie Science Center isn't oblivious to this, and their new roboworld exhibit is one of the best, if not the best, things to come to the Pittsburgh in recent years. I make this claim knowing full well that Pittsburgh has some great sports teams (with three new stadiums), one of the best medical systems in the world, and was already considered prestigious enough to host 2009's G-20 Summit. For years, though, Pittsburgh has been trying to remove the stigma of being a dirty, polluted city and shine as the technological leader it is. This new exhibit may just be the thing that lets Pittsburgh break through and show the world its true colors.

I was recently able to visit the 3.5 million dollar, 6,000 square foot, permanent exhibit. When I arrived, I introduced myself at the front desk and was escorted through the display by Christine Line, Marketing Communications Manager for the Science Center. She walked me through each display, explaining what each one did, possible uses for the technology, and how the Science Center obtained each piece. After thanking her for her time, I toured the exhibit myself, taking a closer look at each display. I quickly realized that not only were the displays fun and interactive, they were also very relevant to the area's businesses. For example, one of the first displays I checked out was a medicine dispensing machine called ROBOT-Rx®. It is essentially a robotic arm with a tool attached on the end that is able to grab pre-sorted medicine "packets" and deposit them into a waiting tray. What makes it unique, though is that it runs purely off of a barcode system. A staff member takes a patient's card (each one with its own barcode), scans it, and lets the machine go to work. The robot reads the barcode, pulls up the patient's medical report, finds the drugs for that patient, scans to barcode on the packet to make sure the drugs are correct, retrieves them, then deposits them into bin that has the same barcode as the patient's card, all of which takes place within the matter of a few seconds. The drugs (the Science Center uses candy) are then double-checked by a pharmacist, and if everything is correct, the drugs are taken to the patient to be administered. Not only does this speed up the process significantly, it removes a large chunk of human error while still avoiding the ramifications of having the process entirely robot controlled (which could lead to the robot making errors).

Now, the really interesting part about the robot isn't its purpose, coding, or process; it is the fact that the robot was made by the McKessen Automated Healthcare, based in Pittsburgh and Cranberry. As I looked through all the other displays, I found most of them were donated by robotics companies that are located in or have ties to Pittsburgh. This really opened up my eyes to the mindset and technology of Pittsburgh. Being a Robotics major here at BC3, I was all but convinced that in order to get a good robotics job, I would have to travel either out of state to Texas or California, or out of country to Japan or Germany. Looking around the displays, though, I realized that there are many, many robotics-based companies in the area, and they are all interested in helping Pittsburgh grow into a cutting-edge city.

Not all the displays are purely business related, however. On one side of the exhibit, a giant, modified manufacturing arm (the same kind you see in car factories) was shooting hoops. Next to it is a separate basketball hoop, reminiscent of the kind you'd see in the North Park Lounge. Visitors can take free shots  and see if they can beat the robot's accuracy. In the time I was there, the "human" accuracy was about 20% (meaning, the visitors only made 1 in 5 of the shots they took). The robot, on the other hand, made a consistent 98%-99% of its shots throughout the day! It was, in fact, a robotic arm used for welding in a automobile plant, but was then replaced and donated to the Science Center. Another popular display, the air hockey robot, is also very fun to interact with. Visitors to the display are encouraged to challenge the robot to a  one minute match. The robotic arm moves deceptively fast for its size, and the supplied screen showed that out of a total of 269 games, the robot had a 56-5-208 W-L-Tie record! One particularly cool aspect of this display was that you can also see the robot tracking the air hockey puck in real time on the screen, and see some of the math it uses to detect where the puck will be next. The robot can even tell when the puck is stuck or floating on its side of the table, and will gently blow it across the table to the visitor.

Another interesting piece is Carnegie Mellon University's "Robot Hall of Fame". Originally started in 2003 by the University, it features replicas of some of the more famous (and notorious) robots throughout time. Icons such as Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the iconic duo C3-P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars have full-sized replicas on display. Other notable robots, such as the T-800 robot from Terminator, Honda's ASIMO humanoid, and NASA's two Mars rovers, Spirit and Discovery, are also in the hall of fame, but do not have replicas present. Adjacent to the Hall of Fame is an interactive timeline of robotics spanning all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci's Anthrobot. It allows users to zoom in on any point in time and learn more about the robotic technology of that period.

Robotics is not just the stuff of movies anymore; it is here, now, and it is making huge technological strides. As organizations like the Carnegie Science Center continue to focus on the future, the interest in robotics has started to filter down into local high schools and colleges (including the new BC3 Robotics program): if this trend continues, the Pittsburgh area is poised to become the leader of robotics in America. If you or anyone you know likes robots, or if you just want to play air hockey against a computer, I would definitely suggest taking a weekend trip down to their Carnegie Science Center. It's a trip you won't regret taking!

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