Carnegie Mellon Robotics Department Rebuilds After Staff Exodus to Uber

A year after it lost 40 researchers and scientists to the ride-share giant, the National Robotics Engineering Center is now thriving — but the loss delivered a significant blow.

by Tom Fontaine, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / March 8, 2016

(TNS) — Carnegie Mellon University said Monday its National Robotics Engineering Center is thriving a year after it lost 40 researchers and scientists to Uber when the ride-share giant opened a Lawrenceville research facility.

But the “Uber crisis,” as School of Computer Science dean Andrew Moore called it, delivered a significant blow to NREC's research activities. Although the Uber exodus didn't force NREC to abandon any research, Moore said NREC research contracts are expected to total $17 million to $18 million this fiscal year, down from an average of $25 million to $27 million in years before the exodus.

Moore said NREC is back on a “growth pathway.”

Carnegie Mellon said NREC landed four federal research contracts in recent months that will amount to a combined $11 million over the next three years. Three are defense projects, while one is geared toward agriculture.

The university said NREC has hired 10 staff members in the past six months, bringing its existing workforce to about 100. That's down from about 140 before the Uber exodus. NREC plans to hire another five to 10 staffers in coming months.

“As the leading academic robotics research center in the world, we're accustomed to a natural flow of technical and research talent (going) back and forth between academia and industry,” said Moore.

“We hire a lot of superstars away from other research centers, and other centers hire superstars from us,” Moore said.

The recently landed contracts include:

  • $4.2 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop technology allowing wheels to transform into tracks so vehicles can navigate a variety of terrains.
  • $4 million from the Defense Department's Test Resource Management Center to develop automated testing for critical software.
  • $2.4 million to develop automation enabling aircraft to operate safely with smaller crews in a DARPA project with the Lockheed Martin company Sikorsky.
  • $1 million to develop robotic vehicles to monitor sorghum plants in an Energy Department project with Texas A&M University's AgriLife Center.

©2016 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.