When Hans Moravec was four years old, living in Austria, his father bought him a Matador construction set—essentially wooden blocks with holes, pegs, and pulley wheels. For one particular project, with his dad’s supervision, he built a wooden man who could be controlled by a crank if all of the pieces were put together correctly. To the preschooler’s delight, when he turned the crank, the man danced. 

“I knew exactly how this was built, where every piece went and why,” recalls Moravec. “It was made of inanimate parts. But when it was all put together, it became quite animate! It knew it wasn’t a person, but constructed correctly, it could be person-like!” 

By fifth grade, he had graduated to tin cans on wheels powered by batteries. By high school, robot arms programmed with computers. By grad school he was playing with parts left over from NASA and constructing robots capable of navigating obstacle courses via TV camera sensors. And by the time he came to Carnegie Mellon in 1980, running one of the four founding labs of the Robotics Institute, he was already one of the world’s foremost experts at making inanimate objects person-like.  

He also had a reputation as a “futurist,” writing books and giving presentations about what the distant future might be like and what capabilities mobile robotics and artificial intelligence might possess. 

By the year 2000, computing power had become good enough and affordable enough that Moravec could finally consider commercializing his self-navigating robots. He spoke to a CNET reporter about how he believed that, with the existing technology he had developed, he should be able to produce, on a commercial scale, customizations to things like industrial forklifts in warehouses that would allow them to do their jobs autonomously. Literally by attaching his sensors and hardware, he could create unmanned robotic heavy lifters from existing industrial vehicles, optimizing workflows and productivity while decreasing injury risks and costs. 

Scott Friedman, an entrepreneur who had just sold a startup of his own, was looking to invest in a new project. He read the CNET article and recognized Moravec’s name. As a teenager in the 1980s, he had come across one of Moravec’s early books and had voraciously soaked up his vision of the incredible power that robotics might have in the distant (now present) future. 

Friedman called the CMU research professor. “What would you need to get this done?” he asked him. They got it done.

Today, Seegrid, the name of their co-founded startup, manufactures these industrial robotics, which are already in operation in warehouses and factories across the country. In addition to selling robotics, they’re exploring relationships with industrial equipment manufacturers such as Toyota-Raymond. They believe that the sensory technology they’ve developed—with millions of miles already logged in warehouses and factories—rivals Google’s self-driving cars.

Fast Company is duly impressed. The international business magazine recently named the Carnegie Mellon spinoff one of “The World’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Robotics.”
—Bradley A. Porter (DC’08)

Related Links:
Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Robotics