Anglo American PLC and Carnegie Mellon sign master agreement for Robotics Development

Carnegie Mellon University has signed a five-year master agreement with one of the world’s largest mining companies, London-based Anglo American PLC, to develop robotic technologies for mining.

CMU’s Robotics Institute (RI), through its National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) and Field Robotics Center (FRC), will design, build and deploy mining robots, robotic tools and autonomous technologies in partnership with Anglo American’s Technology Development Group.

“We are excited that Anglo American selected CMU as its partner for developing innovative mining robotics,” said Tony Stentz, NREC director.

“This agreement will break new ground in mining technology,” said Dimi Apostolopoulos, principal investigator and senior systems scientist at NREC. “We will apply robotics to underground mining tasks that are perilous and extremely challenging for humans. Our robotic solutions will improve productivity through innovations in processes and technologies.”

The RI will build upon its track record of successful mining automation projects to develop advanced perception, electromechanical and robotic systems for Anglo American. It will partner with Anglo American engineers to put the NREC’s and FRC’s field-proven technologies to work in the company’s mining operations. The immediate applications include robotic mining machinery, mine mapping and automated inspections. Anglo American and the RI also will explore other applications under this master agreement.

“We will work hard to get production robotics in place as soon as possible,” Apostolopoulos said.

Automating the most difficult, costly and dangerous mining jobs will improve safety and increase the productivity and efficiency of Anglo American’s operations. Advances in robotics will allow the mining of hard-to-reach ore deposits that cannot be economically extracted under existing methods and mine layouts.

Anglo American’s master agreement with CMU is part of its strategic plan for advancing mining technologies. The company has worldwide operations, producing such commodities as iron ore, metallurgical coal, thermal coal, copper, nickel, platinum and diamonds.

“Working with top robotics experts is essential to our technology and innovation programs,” said Donovan Waller, who leads automation and remote control technology development for Anglo American. “Our agreement with Carnegie Mellon University will allow us to rapidly deploy new systems in our platinum mines and develop technologies that will shape our future operations.”

Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center Offers Professional Education on Robot Capabilities

Engineers and managers responsible for research and new product development can learn how and where robotic technology can be applied successfully in the Robotics Professional Education Course, May 22-24 at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC).

For 17 years, the NREC, part of Carnegie Mellon’s pioneering Robotics Institute, has worked with industrial firms and government agencies to solve problems and create new capabilities across an unparalleled range of real-world systems. NREC engineers have used mobile robots and other advanced robotic technologies to address challenges in military, mining, agricultural and other settings.

During the 2½ day course, NREC faculty and senior staff members will share their insights in this emerging field, identifying the strengths and weaknesses of various robotic technologies, reviewing case studies and providing techniques for assessing the suitability and costs of robotic technologies.

Attendees also can schedule a private meeting with NREC specialists to discuss how their organizations might take advantage of robotic technologies.

The cost of the course is $2,000, with discounts available for NREC sponsors, government employees and registrations completed by April 20. For more information, visit

Carnegie Robotics LLC Partners With Carnegie Mellon to Manufacture Robotic Components and Systems

Carnegie Mellon University just announced the launch of a new firm, Carnegie Robotics LLC to develop, manufacture and service robotic components and systems in partnership with the university’s highly successful National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC).

Carnegie Robotics will create products based upon technology licensed from the NREC, an arm of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute that performs applied research and prototype development for industrial and government organizations. John Bares, director of the NREC since 1997, has taken a leave of absence from the university to lead the startup company. Anthony Stentz, who has served as associate director since 1997, will take over leadership of the NREC.

“NREC is a tremendous success story; it has experienced robust growth for more than a decade,” said Mark S. Kamlet, Carnegie Mellon executive vice president and provost. “By turning NREC’s innovations into commercial products, Carnegie Robotics will further strengthen NREC while expanding the robotics industry in western Pennsylvania.”

Bares said Carnegie Robotics will initially concentrate on producing extremely reliable components that other manufacturers can use to automate machines used in such fields as mining, agriculture, petroleum production and defense. But as the company develops its own production expertise, plans call for manufacturing and servicing entire robotic systems. Both the company and NREC might also benefit from jointly marketing their services, he added.

 “NREC has become the ‘go to’ organization for performing applied research and prototype development for field robots,” Stentz said. “But now when we deliver a prototype, NREC customers increasingly want to know who can convert the prototype to a manufacturable product, as well as support and service the product over its lifetime. By addressing this production need, NREC will occupy a more competitive position and realize continued growth.”

The company has leased space within the NREC facility, a renovated foundry in the Lawrenceville  about three miles from the Carnegie Mellon campus.

“Carnegie is a storied industrial name, particularly here in western Pennsylvania,” said Matt Mason, director of the Robotics Institute. “I know John and his team will work hard to build a company that lives up to the Carnegie name and that will help this region retain more of the talented roboticists and engineers who are trained here.”

The NREC opened in 1996 as an operating unit within the Robotics Institute. The brainchild of William “Red” Whittaker, the Fredkin University Professor of Robotics and director of the Field Robotics Center, the NREC has focused on developing commercial applications of mobile robots for such companies as John Deere, Shell Oil, Caterpillar and Consol Energy.

Carnegie Mellon engineers develop machine that visually inspects and sorts strawberry plants

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) have developed a plant-sorting machine that uses computer vision and machine learning to inspect and grade harvested strawberry plants and then mechanically sort them by quality — tasks that until now could only be done manually.

In a successful field test this fall, the machine classified and sorted harvested plants more consistently and faster than workers could, with a comparable error rate.

“We’re looking forward to using the system,” said Liz Ponce, CEO of Lassen Canyon Nursery in Redding, Calif., one of five strawberry plant producers sponsoring the NREC project. “All of our stakeholders feel that it has a lot of potential.” The other sponsors are Driscoll Nursery Associates; Nor Cal Nursery, Inc.; Plant Sciences, Inc.; and Crown Nursery LLC. Together, the five producers represent about 85 percent of the California strawberry plant nursery market.

To maintain good strawberry yields, commercial berry growers must replace their plants every year. During the fall harvest season, strawberry plant nursery farms use manual labor to sort several hundred million strawberry plants into good and bad categories — a tedious and costly process.

The strawberry plant sorter uses computer vision to examine harvested plants that pass by on a conveyor belt. The sorter’s novel machine learning algorithms allow it to be taught how to classify strawberry plants of different sizes, varieties and stages of growth, beyond the simple classification of good and bad plants. This introduces dramatic new efficiencies for strawberry nursery farms, helping them improve quality, streamline production and deliver better strawberry plants to berry growers, which in turn produces better strawberries for consumers.

“The sorter can adapt to plants that vary from year to year, or even within the same growing season,” said Christopher Fromme, the project’s manager and lead engineer. “It’s very flexible.”

During a 10-day field test in October, NREC engineers tested the strawberry plant sorter under realistic conditions, where rain and frost change plants’ appearance, and roots may contain mud and debris. The prototype system had to sort plants of different varieties and levels of maturity. While in the field, it sorted more than 75,000 strawberry plants. On average, it sorted 5,000 plants per hour, several times faster than human sorting. The NREC hopes to achieve sorting rates of 20,000-30,000 plants per hour with the final system. While the sorter’s overall error rate was close to that of human workers, it inspected and sorted plants more consistently.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Ponce said. “Hand sorting varies more and has more drift in quality.”

The successful field trial concludes phase two of a five-phase program that will develop a machine ready for commercial operations. Phase three will develop better methods to separate harvested strawberry plants for inspection, improve the sorter’s robustness and ease of use, and integrate it into the nurseries’ harvesting and packaging processes.

For more information about the strawberry plant sorter, visit the NREC’s Web site at The NREC, part of the Robotics Institute in the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, works closely with industry and government clients to develop and mature robotic technologies from concept to commercialization.

PghTech Women Network™ sponsors all-girls teams in First Lego League (FLL) Robotics Challenge

On Saturday, December 5th, nearly 1000 regional robotics enthusiasts attended the First Lego League (FLL) Challenge at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC). Over seventy student teams participated in the event, including two all female teams, sponsored by the PghTech Women Network™.
FLL is a robotics competition for students 9 to 14 years old, during which each team must build a robot using the same toolkit.  The 2009 competition was dubbed “Smart Move,” with all teams working on a unique transportation-related research project, which was presented to judges during the competition.  One of the all female teams opted to do research on Pittsburgh’s tunnels, the pros and cons. For example, they learned that when it rains traffic slows down when approaching a tunnel.
During the actual competition, each team places the robot on a platform – about the size of a pool table — and the robot maneuvers around it.
The PghTech Women Network™ sponsored “Executive Powers” team took second place out of 72 teams in the Teamwork category.  “Girls Investigating Robots” (GIR) comprised the second all-female team; these teams were formed by sixteen girls from several Pittsburgh-area schools and some home school students.    As a result of the PghTech Women Network™ advisory committee, these students from around the region were encouraged to participate and are referred to as “Jr. PghTech Women” by the committee.  This group of students decided on the team names mentioned above.
Sara Sibenaller, an engineer at Philips Home Healthcare Solutions and lead coach for the girls’ teams commented, “The PghTech Women Network™ is proud of the outstanding accomplishments of a very young, first-year team and we look forward to working with them again next year. We encourage any other young girls in Pittsburgh to contact us if they are interested in joining these teams.”
One of the competition judges commented, “The Executive Powers team had the ability to explain the technical process coupled with fresh enthusiasm.”
PghTechWomen Network™ team coaches and advisory committee were all volunteers, and included Krystle Englehart, Sharon Long, Miranda Berner, Erika Franzen, Joyce Query, Rena Venturini, Mollie Llewellyn, and Sara Sibenaller.  Twenty corporate sponsors from the region made these teams become a reality.
About PghTech Women Network™
PghTech Women NetworkTM, hosted by the Pittsburgh Technology Council and sponsored by Google Pittsburgh and Sycor Americas Inc., provide female technology professionals a forum for networking, best practice exchange, online interaction and community visibility. PghTech Women NetworkTM provides women working in technology positions (STEM) an opportunity for peer-to-peer networking, targeted career development and technology-focused civic and business engagement. Conceptualized by female industry thought-leaders, this network will seek to provide strategic direction to women in the field of information technology.