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Robots to put humans to work

Firm with Carnegie Mellon roots plans to hire 100 people to help make and sell robots that fix sewer pipes.

A Pittsburgh-area robotics company has good news for unemployed computer industry types: They're hiring!.

RedZone Robotics, which makes machines to repair sewer pipes, on Friday said it plans to hire 100 people over the next three years. About half of the new employees will be engineers, including software engineers, said Eric Close, the company's CEO. What's more, he said, the jobs probably won't be shipped overseas anytime soon, as is happening with many tech positions. That's because robotics is a field requiring expertise that's not found in many places, he said.

"It's so nascent, it's so specialized," Close said. "You have to find the right population."

A major center for robot research is in western Pennsylvania, home of Carnegie Mellon University. Professors there include robotic vision specialist Hans Moravec and William "Red" Whittaker, who founded a company working on robots that can map mine shafts.

Whittaker also founded RedZone Robotics. And many of RedZone's roughly 25 employees graduated from or continue to be affiliated with Carnegie Mellon.

Government leaders are helping to push along the robotics industry in western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's Department of Community and Economic Development has offered RedZone Robotics a financial package totaling $500,000. It includes a $100,000 loan, a $100,000 grant, $200,000 in tax credits and $100,000 in customized job training.

The hiring news is bound to be encouraging to techies. The unemployment rate for computer-related occupations--which include computer programmers and computer system analysts and scientists--dropped to 4.5 percent in the second quarter of this year from 5.4 percent in the second quarter of 2003. But the unemployment rate for that category was far lower in the 1990s, and stayed below 2 percent from 1994 to 2000.

Robots have tended to remain in industrial settings, despite predictions--and fears--that they would play a more central role in daily life. But with machines like iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner, robots are beginning to march into homes.

RedZone had been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings but was reorganized about 14 months ago. The company began in 1987 with a focus on custom robotic equipment for hazardous environments. It now concentrates on standard products for the construction industry, Close said. RedZone machines, which include the tank-like Mobile Platform Worker, are designed to clean and fix pipes and tanks. The robots are partially operated by humans, but can cut costs compared with the use of rival equipment that is fully manual, Close said. No one in the field offers the same level of automation, Close said.

"We're the only real robot guys," he said.