Carnegie Mellon University
Skip navigation and jump directly to page content

August 1: Carnegie Mellon Researchers Launch Arts-Based Robotics Program


Anne Watzman

Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon Researchers Launch Arts-Based Robotics Program
To Increase Technical Literacy in the Pittsburgh Region

Summer Program Is Prelude to Larger Events Celebrating City's 250th Anniversary in 2008

Building RobotsPITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University researchers want everyone in Pittsburgh to learn to build robots. They say the experience will foster creativity, build a sense of community and increase the technical literacy of the entire city.

To this end, they've launched Robot 250, a program in which students, families, artists and the general public can gather and build their own customized robots using cutting-edge technology and educational materials developed at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute.

An important part of the program is developing robotic art installations for display in public spaces during the Pittsburgh region's 250th anniversary celebration in 2008. This will help Pittsburgh celebrate its robotic roots, which stretch back to the 1920s when Westinghouse Corp. created some of the world's first robots.

In 1979, Westinghouse provided the initial funding for Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. Since then, it has become one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world. From its origins in building robots for factory automation, the Robotics Institute has expanded to impact all aspects of society — from space exploration and cleanup of radioactive material at Three Mile Island to enhancing vehicle safety, assisting surgeons as they operate, and developing innovative tools for entertainment and education.

The visionaries behind Robot 250 are Robotics Institute Associate Professor Illah Nourbakhsh and Carl DiSalvo, a research scientist in Nourbakhsh's Community Robotics Education and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Laboratory. DiSalvo, who has a doctor's degree in design from Carnegie Mellon, is also a fellow in Carnegie Mellon's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.

"We had been working on educational robotics projects and decided to make art and design a larger part of them," said Nourbakhsh. "We asked ourselves, 'What's the largest public robotics education program we can imagine that focuses on using art and design to get people interested in science and technology?'"

"We were looking for a way to make robotics more accessible," DiSalvo added. "The arts-based approach differentiates us and picks up on the rich arts tradition at Carnegie Mellon and the city of Pittsburgh. Art also makes technology culturally significant. We can question it and make it in a way that is more human."

The first phase of the program, which began last month and runs through February 2008, is funded with a grant from the Heinz Foundation with additional support from the Intel Corp. and the Grable Foundation.  It features educational workshops and open studios at six sites around the city, including the Mattress Factory on Pittsburgh's North Side, the Neighborhood Nets showcase at the Stephen Foster Community Center in Lawrenceville, Carnegie Science Center's Mission/Discovery at the Hill House, C-MITES at Carnegie Mellon, and the Homewood-Brushton and Greater Pittsburgh YWCAs. More sites will be added in the fall. If the program attracts additional funding, as its creators hope, it could run through 2009, with workshops, events and exhibitions reaching as many as 75,000 families and school-age children.

Robot 250 is built around three themes: neighborhood and play, environment, and history and heritage. Under the leadership of Project Director Dennis Bateman, more than 150 people are working in teams to design robots that will allow them to explore and learn new things about their neighborhoods. They will then interpret their findings by creating kinetic robotic sculptures. Their tools include Telepresence Robot Kits (TeRKs), Gigapan cameras and a unique sensor pack called the Canary.

TeRK robots (, which Nourbakhsh unveiled earlier this year, are simple enough for almost anyone to build by following "recipes" developed by CREATE Lab researchers. Yet, despite their simplicity, TeRKs can connect wirelessly to the Internet and be operated from anywhere in the world by any Internet-connected computer.

The Gigapan ( is a robotic platform for capturing very high-resolution (gigapixel and up) panoramic images from a standard digital camera. The Canary sensors enable people to collect data on various aspects of the environment, like noise levels, temperature, humidity or air quality.

"People are talking about what kind of a robot would fit into their neighborhoods," said Nourbakhsh. "Kids can build a device to test air quality, which plays right into the needs of people with asthma. In Lawrenceville, they're talking about using Canary sensors to monitor sound. When noise gets too loud, the sensor would pop up."

Nourbakhsh said others are envisioning a sensor in the form of a bird that would move up and down a wire strung above the street, alerting residents about temperatures, pollution or humidity.

"As Pittsburgh prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2008, it is appropriate that the celebrations include our region's leading role in robotics," Bateman said. "More than looking back, Robot 250 will highlight the future of Pittsburgh, emphasizing educational and creative opportunities in robotics."

For more information on the Robot 250 program, see

(View a video from the open studio at the Mattress Factory on the North Side, one of six sites participating in the Robot 250 summer program.)

(In the photo above, a student builds his customized robot at the Carnegie Science Center's Mission/Discovery program at the Hill House.)