BY JIM TALERICO
TALERICO IS AN ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AT RMU
They can perform surgery at a hospital, conduct enemy surveillance on a battlefield, or beat the smartest of competitors on a TV game show. No, we're not talking about Rhodes Scholars – this is a story about robots, and how one RMU alumna is part of a pioneering enterprise employing robots to perform manual labor in a futuristic way.
Sana Ali M'10 is an applications engineer at Pittsburgh-based Seegrid, a nine-year-old spinoff of Carnegie Mellon University's mobile robot lab. The company's robotic industrial trucks are revolutionizing how inventory moves across floors at manufacturing and distribution sites.
The typical unmanned industrial vehicle requires floor magnets, buried wires, or costly lasers to pick up and move materials in a warehouse. But Seegrid's two robotic stars – a pallet truck that lifts 8,000 pounds and a tow tractor that hauls 10,000 pounds – incorporate state-of-the art vision technology that saves businesses time and money.
Here's how it works: Cameras mounted on a robot take pictures of the environment. The images are recorded in the robot's memory, and converted into maps made up of 3-D grids. The robot is able to see the grid – hence the company's name – and understand where it is at all times as it lugs heavy loads from one place to another autonomously. If someone or something gets in its way, the robot stops or slows down until the obstacle moves away.
"No other company has this technological ability to move from point A to point B using cameras," explains Ali, who hails from Qatar and received her master's in engineering management from RMU. "The robot remembers, 'I am going to make that turn and follow that path.'" The technology, she adds, "is so smart and yet so simple."
Working with sales account managers, Ali travels to potential customer sites to see how many robots a business might need and if the facility is compatible to motorized coworkers. Savings to the bottom line – not to mention workers' feet and knees – are behind Seegrid's success in a torpid economy. In just the past few years, the company has doubled its staff to 67 employees and expanded its headquarters at RIDC Park West in Findlay Township. Customers include Giant Eagle, Genco Supply Chain Solutions, and Daimler Trucks. Watching the robots in operation leaves Ali literally speechless. "Amazing," she says, pausing. "I have no words."
For Ali, who spent nearly six years as an industrial engineer at Pittsburgh-based FedEx Ground before joining Seegrid in November, a typical day at the office is clearly atypical. Recently, she observed an air hockey game in which a humanoid robot competed with its human creator, the head of Seegrid's research and development. "The robot kept watching and learning the other player, watching every move. It got so smart that after a while, there was no way you could beat it."
In time, Ali sees Seegrid's vision-guided solutions adapted for various industries, including defense and medicine. "This technology could be the right path to so many things," she says. But with the excitement of artificial intelligence and the arrival of "thinking" robots come concerns about what happens when mechanical workers replace real people on the job.
"Lots of people wonder about this. That's why industrial engineers, who try to minimize costs, are the most hated," Ali says, laughing. While she doesn't deny that robots can lead to a reduced workforce, she says the emphasis is not on eliminating workers but reassigning resources. If robots can handle the monotonous, time-consuming, and dangerous jobs, companies can allow employees to focus on other, highervalue tasks. "We're not about replacing people, but at the end of the day, what is your goal?" Ali asks. "To be the most productive using minimal costs."
Seegrid is the magnum opus of co-founder Hans Moravec, the company's chief scientist and an adjunct robotics professor at CMU. The Austrian-born Moravec is known as a visionary in the field of artificial intelligence, and his books include Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence and Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind. In "Rise of the Robots," a 2008 essay he wrote for Scientific American, Moravec predicted that by 2040, robotics will introduce "a freely moving machine with the intellectual capabilities of a human being." These human-like automatons, according to Moravec, will have a conscience and be capable of reasoning.
Ali isn't looking into any crystal balls. She takes one day at a time, loves her job, and has great admiration for Moravec. "He's why Seegrid is here," she says.