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Business as Usual: Roadbotics

Business as Usual

RoadBotics Co-Founder and President Dr. Ben Schmidt joined us on Business as Usual to discuss the company's ground-breaking technology that empowers communities to make objective, data-driven decisions about their roads and infrastructure. RoadBotics automates inspections and generates actionable data about road networks, including identification of individual distresses like potholes and alligator cracking. Ben will detail how the company provides detailed maps, unbiased ratings and practical tools to save time and taxpayer dollars for hundreds of communities across the country and around the world. Ben has extensive experience in bringing machine learning technologies out of the research lab and successfully into the market. Join the webcast today to learn more about Ben and one of Pittsburgh's most exciting and promising tech companies.

 

 

Transcription: 

So good afternoon everyone. This is Audrey Russo president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, thrilled as always to join everyone at noon. Glad that you could join us today, we really enjoy business as usual. And the feedback that we've gotten from you is that you enjoy it as well. So today is going to be no exception. We're thrilled to have Benjamin Smith with us today. I call him Ben. But his full name is Benjamin Smith, and he will talk about him in a minute. So we have muted your microphones. And that's just to try to get the noise out and to be considered our guests. And then we also have a chat, and we monitor that. So we're trying to make sure that we have an opportunity to ask questions and have an exchange. This is a conversation not meant to be a lecture. So I do want to give a shout out to Huntington bank. If you've been on this this call before you know that Huntington has been with us right from the beginning. I'm blown away that we At the six month mark, in terms of COVID, locked down working from home, etc. and Huntington bank has been with us the entire journey, and providing support to small businesses navigating through the complexities of the stimulus, some initiatives, and just being a good friend to the tech community. So I'm gonna jump right in. I'm very excited to bring in a friend and colleague Ben Schmidt, co founder and president of robotics. So, welcome. Thank you, Ben, for being here. Thanks for taking the time. And I know that you like all of us have had just, you know, a very interesting journey over the last six months. But as Pittsburgh is the place that we like to consider the world for, for robotics, what better conversation to have then with Roadbotics? So we're going to jump in and I'm going to say let's talk about Ben, let's talk about who is Ben What How did he get to where he is right now? So that and also, how are you holding up? Want to know how you're actually doing? So, Ben, thanks for taking the time.

Yeah, thanks for having us. Or me, I guess. Um, and I liked your introduction with some robotics and robotics. Yeah, one of the worst parts about the robotics name is that once you say that often enough, you can't do road robotics anymore, you end up just saying robotics. Okay. Um, so, you know, overall, I think I'm doing quite well answer your questions a little bit in reverse. You know, I think this is a really interesting time in the world. So what's the I think it's a curse, right, that may live in interesting times. You nailed it. I think we're all accomplishing that for sure. Yeah, so a little bit about myself. So I'm the president and co founder, one of the co founders of robotics, robotics, about four years old, but before that, was actually at another startup here in Pittsburgh. Pantera. And then before that I actually went to I did a PhD and my undergrad at Pitt, strangely enough in bioengineering. So I was actually looking at how brain signals sort of interacted and how we could measure those and sort of understand better how different parts of the brain communicated. By the time I was done with my PhD and leaving, I was looking at conterra as I think many people on the call, will recall. quanta was doing energy price forecasting here in Pittsburgh, it was another startup. We had some backing from General Electric industry partners while I was doing brains and undergrad and grad school. You know, the math was very similar. And so we were applying a lot of the same algorithms and machine learning to price forecasting, and then ended up actually jumping once again, new industry, here to robotics. In which we're looking at sort of payments and payment distresses and infrastructure using a smartphone camera. So it's been an interesting journey certainly over the last several years. I unfortunately can't say I grew up in Pittsburgh, I grew up in New York, but it is definitely become my home and my you know, my wife and son, we all live here actually, both of our my wife's parents and my parents, we've convinced to move out here. So we are certainly huge Pittsburgh fans, and making that known and shown so

and so you are all

your team. We're gonna talk about robotics, right? We're gonna talk about how it started with a grant project, you know, hypothesis that can AI and machine learning, be used to identify potholes and we know that potholes are not just part of the tagline of Pittsburgh, it's everywhere. So what I'd like to do is just talk a little bit about that is that correct them assumption that that was the hypothesis and then tell us more about the origin and journey to date.

Absolutely. So yeah, robotics is a spin out of Carnegie Mellon. So one of my other co founders, so there are four of us, but one of the others is our today, our chief scientist, Christoph Mertz. And it was really his sort of idea. So he's been at CMU for many years now. And his idea of, you know, smartphones are this. They're ubiquitous, everybody's got one. They have incredible sensors on them. They have a lot of processing power. They were looking a lot at like their early autonomous vehicles and sort of the work he was doing and his idea was all about, can we use smartphones to not you know, try to understand something about the vehicle but rather about the infrastructure, the stuff and so naturally, you know, potholes and sort of cracks come to mind. As we've certainly gone down this journey of learning more and more about pavement and pavement distresses. You come to find that while most people complain About potholes. It's the thing that really damages your car you feel him, you know, you get that really pissed off feeling. really sort of damning part is actually much before that. So small cracks start to form in pavement, water gets in there. And over time that sort of erodes out the surface of the pavement and becoming a pothole. Once you see a pothole in the road is effectively destroyed. You can do a little bit to patch it, but you really need to sort of fully redo it. And so a lot of what robotics does is actually help clients who are governments to better understand their road networks much before that moment before the pothole. But yeah, so I think from sort of research project at CMU, to sort of that commercialization spin out to where we are today has been, you know, a big journey, a big sort of learning curve and a lot of different dimensions, but ultimately, it's I think, I think it's a lot of the promise of sort of looking at university research and then how that can sort of transition into a full fledged company that is offering services around the world to clients everywhere, and seeing sort of the success of that.

And so is the world really your oyster? I mean, the proliferation of infrastructure is aging in many places, but I don't know enough about outside of the US. But what's the what is the How large is the problem in the US?

So the problem is, is very large. So infrastructure is one of those. Well, again, one of the most interesting pieces that if you look at sort of infrastructure from sort of the normal person's perspective, who's not sort of in that industry, infrastructure is really something that you complain about when it's failed, right so you complain about the pothole but you know, when you get into work, you're, if we were ever driving into work again, you'd complain about the pothole, but you wouldn't ever start stable like wow, but all those new roads are Right. So like infrastructure works when it's not noticeable. And so what ends up happening is that Yeah, the same claim that, you know, the Pittsburgh region has its own self made reputation for talking about its roads and infrastructure and house, right? quality they are. But that theme across the United States is identical. Every single town has the same. Okay. Well, you Grumman from Pittsburgh, you should check out the roads here. Everybody's got that kind of mythology around bad infrastructure. The United States certainly does not do very well at it overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers always comes out with a report card. And we don't get very good grades probably get, you know, grounded for a week or something like that if you brought it home with your parents. So and that's the US internationally, it's very much the same. So I think another sort of myth we have here in the United States that we hear a lot is like, Oh, well in Europe, they take very good care, right. Okay. Not really. All right. So it's a huge problem. And the reason for it is that when you think about the size of infrastructure, it's just, it's massive. Its massive. It's been built over, in some cases, hundreds of years. And so it requires sort of a level of investment and in maintenance and management, they were just not really prepared to provide to the level that I think would eliminate a lot of the complaints. And that's largely where we try to come in is that, you know, we're not robotics is not going to sort of like instantly solve all the world's problems and infrastructure. What we're hoping to do is make it so that it's just a little bit easier to manage a little bit easier to maintain. And then if we can keep that little bit easier sort of steadily increasing. As we make our products better as we roll out new features, then we can ultimately make a real dent in sort of how infrastructure actually presents to us that there are few potholes that there's better roads that they last longer. And that you also feel that in your pocketbook, right? Because a large if you look at sort of a small town government really anywhere in the world, a significant portion of their budget of your tax dollars, go to this right go to repairing building bridges, fixing guardrails, right, like it's a it's a big, big investment that governments have. So if we can just make that even a little bit better, you know, we're all sort of better off by it.

So we've made international news by the sinking of our Port Authority Bus in was that a pothole? Was that a pothole

a very big pothole?

Yes, I think not really our finest moment

route and, and Catherine who runs the Port Authority has been on our show twice and she's she she takes it in good humor and good spirit and everyone was safe, but

You know, I would say that's become

sort of like a little bit of our tagline right now.

Absolutely. I mean, it certainly is a, I think our national reputation when robotics calls on people, several of them No, no about that. Again, I think, you know, to me one of the biggest changes here, and if people walk away with nothing else from this conversation, I hope they get a little bit of this, which is, I think, by and large, sort of the the national and to some extent, international sentiment is like, why is this pothole here? How dare they Why can't they fix it? You know, it's it's this sort of blaming sort of government for not really being able to keep up with it. I think what is so exciting, so I mean, today, robotics has about like 250 clients, but I personally talked to probably two or three times that like sat across from a municipal government official and sort of had these conversations and the best part about I think what what we can all And I think what's so exciting for myself for our employees is that when you sit across from the room from them, and you talk to them about, here's a solution that can help you to try to prevent exactly that kind of problem. They are over the moon at the idea for it, right? They're just ecstatic. So this, you know, I think we have this unfair sentiment that like the fact that a pothole exists is somehow like, negligence or incompetent. It's not, it's such a hard problem, you know, to look at and inspect and constantly be monitoring all of these pieces. It's a massive challenge. And so offering tools that make that a little bit better, I think, are ultimately the way that will get better public sector services, better public sector tools, and you know, in our case, better infrastructure. And I think it's really important for ourselves to remember that like, you know, they're not sitting in a municipal building going like oh, I could fill that pothole, but I don't want it's mostly that we don't know that. It is This right, nobody reported it, nobody could have talked about it. Or even in the worst cases, we don't have budget to sort of do the things that are necessary to sort of fix it. So I do think robotics is helping to sort of change that. And I think we're all very proud that that's where we can, hopefully keep pushing sort of everybody towards is that there are ways that we can make this better, and that we can get something out of it. So I think that's really exciting. Well, yeah, I mean,

it totally is when it comes to safety as well. I mean, there's just lots of lots of pieces in here. Leslie, June is asking is our local governments the target customer for your service?

Yes. So we like to think of it as kind of um, it's almost like a colloquialism like a road manager. So there's someone that usually takes taxpayer dollar by March and applies different types of treatments. So fully reconstructing roads, filling in potholes, etc. And by and large, that is municipal officials, like a head of Public Works, the streets department, it can be a couple different levels of government. So municipal governments, you can think about like Cranberry Township, Bethel, not libo. But you can also think like city governments, counties, as well as states. The federal government has some roads that they maintain. They're usually like reservations, national parks and bases. But one of the most fascinating parts of how infrastructure is funded in the United States is about 80% of it is actually the local level. So this is below states, counties, cities. So most of the sort of like, interactions that everyone here has with your own infrastructure is funded at a very, very local level. So it is the city of Pittsburgh it is Penn hills, it is a you know, a McKeesport that is paving, repairing and making decisions about their roads, which is really kind of a fascinating dynamic. It's very sort of distributed in that decision making process. So that's our customer base.

So, you know, last year, you know, capital is always a big thing for, you know, startups and it's a big thing for Pittsburgh, particularly because 70% of the money actually that gets invested in Pittsburgh companies comes from outside the region. And you you were no exception that you close an important round of financing. Can you just talk about that round? You're talking about your investor, or any any wisdom around that?

Absolutely. Yeah. And you are right, we fit right into that pattern. So we we finished up our series a round. It was a seven and a half million dollar round. It was led by a firm called radical ventures. It's based out of Toronto. So not only were we out of the region, we were out of the country. They're they're a great firm, they're, they're sort of newer, but their their investment thesis is all around, really applying AI and sort of like investing in that Especially two sort of technologies like ours that sort of fit into this kind of non traditional AI, sort of like other adjacent industries. We were fortunate enough, we were actually followed on. So our seed round was led by from hyperplane. They're based out of Boston. And so the two of them really came in, you know, as well as a lot of our earlier investors also contributed. But for sure, you know, I think that trend continues and that most of the capital, most of sort of what we will sort of need going into the future as we're looking at sort of, you know, potentially future rounds, will more than likely come from outside the region just for, you know, the virtue of that's where the capital is at right now. That's where the opportunity is. Mm hmm.

We got some accolades here that from Kiana saying she's a huge fan of robotics worked with them in her last life important to know that maintenance ongoing maintenance costs a fraction of what it costs to fix what once failed challenges to shift to local government mindset. From reactive to proactive, so I think you embody that.

Absolutely, actually. And that is certainly another huge challenge here is that one of the reasons we get into a lot of trouble is, if you think about repairing, or sort of maintaining roads as similar to like a car or any other asset, if you wait until the thing is, like completely busted and broken down on the side of the highway, that's when it's going to cost the most money. But if you're getting sort of a regular oil, check, etc, you know, you'll you'll have, it'll extend further. So moving towards preventative maintenance is really going to be one of the biggest keys here. And again, this is a huge, sort of, it's a challenge for really everybody. But when you think about municipal governments, it's a political problem as well. It is not sexy or interesting to say that, you know, we have really stellar infrastructure that we are always maintaining. What's interesting is like, we just built a new bridge, or we widen the highway like things that you can tangibly see Scene field. And from the earlier comment, that's part of the problem, right? You don't notice the roads that are in good condition, you notice the roads that are in terrible condition. And some of that is, I think, the mindset that, you know, to really be successful here in sort of changing how infrastructure kind of policy is made, but also sort of the infrastructure that we all interact with. We've got to move towards, or at least, sort of draw something that becomes more interesting around the fact that managing and maintaining is is critically important to our overall success. We can't just always be rebuilding and expanding or, you know, those are fun and interesting, and you get all the big machines and things. But that's, that's just not how we're going to have long term success with infrastructure.

No, it's great. And just to give a shout out to Dan Goleman, he actually always posts when he's repairing roads and when things are going on. So he does that regularly in terms of communicating across the city. not sexy, not Sexy but important. So. So how about like you talked earlier about like your, you know, you're involved in over 250? if not more communities and have partners across I think 34 states and maybe 14 countries with some of your new clients and larger cities. Can you talk about the outcomes? Can you talk about like, what does it mean? The obviously in terms of preventative, but what else does it mean?

So that's a very good question. So I think, you know, a lot of what we offer to our client bases, sort of, if you think about it, the simplest way to explain is just a better understanding, right? So they have more information at their fingertips from which to make, ideally, more informed decisions or better decisions that are based on data. That's really the kind of you know, that's the tagline for robotics. That's, you know, what we do in a nutshell, the really interesting pieces that, you know, we hadn't anticipated I think when we started one of the most important pieces that if you think about how a government sort of operates on a day to day basis, and sort of absent like filling potholes, and you know, the main crux of our business, robotics actually becomes a really powerful communication tool. The reason I say that is that when you think about like filling in a pothole, well, you have a lot of different people that are interacting. So you could have a citizen that's calling to complain about the pothole, you could have the elected officials that are sort of like looking at different ways to fund different parts of the city. You could have contractors you could have, like, there's all these different components in there. And one of the most powerful thing that robotics offers that's really kind of shifts, a lot of the mentality is that the communication style so now we have a set of data, that's really the ground truth for infrastructure within that community. And from there, it will inform all their future discussion. So, you know, should we do this, or should we do that? Well, let's look at what the data says like Should we go here, or should we invest in that? Well, let's look at what the datasets. And I think that's really one of these very subtle changes that we see a lot within communities that we work with is how communication changes how sort of what was previously maybe a very politically polarized kind of conversation of like, what do you want to pay this row or this row immediately becomes a more objective decision around. You know what, we're going to do this because if we look at the entire network, clearly, this is the best decision. And so I think that's one really powerful aspect of it. The second is that it really starts to unlock a lot of other kind of government interactions. So one of our one of my favorite stories is that when you if you've ever seen like the fire hydrants that have the little metal flags on top of them, the reason that they have that is that when a snowplow comes down in the winter, it'll cover over the fire hydrant, so the little flag is so that if the fire department gets called, they can still see where the fire hydrant to tap into the water. Now, the most interesting part is like on the one hand, you think, wait a minute, I can find like every single Starbucks in the on the planet on my cell phone, but the fire department in my town can't figure out where the fire hydrants are. Okay, that's one. But then you think about like, well, where did all the fire hydrants come from? Right? They were built over 5070 years, they are putting in different places, some are removed, some are added. So it's hard to keep track of. And so I think one of the most interesting pieces of like, using the data that we have, and we actually just rolled out a new product called agile mapper that helps to do this is actually all about creating these asset maps. So fire hydrants are one, but you can also think about that same problem being around where all the speed limit signs where all the stop signs, were all my guardrails where my traffic lights, my street lights, and so there's just can you think about the physical environment that governments operate in? Just so much stuff out there? And it's hard to keep up with it, it's hard to manage it, it's hard to maintain it. And so we are just trying to offer more and more tools to make that easier, easier. So I think where we started with, let's find cracks and potholes on has now sort of expanded into this more holistic approach around. Let's help with infrastructure in general. And I think that's kind of an exciting move that we're seeing within our own organization as we are kind of like, wow, I think there's a lot more opportunity here to really help what governments are doing on a day to day basis.

So it's interesting. So, you know, obviously we're gonna I wanted to talk about the pandemic and how that's impacting your operations. It's question here from Tina saying, Are you hiring? And then there's a question follow up with Nita about could you use this for part maintenance I love when people who are listening are thinking about other applications for the companies that we hosted on here. So you went all virtual, right? I mean, you were one of the first that immediately went all virtual and you remain so. But what, you know what, what's happened? What else is happening in that pandemic period of time? And what do you think about the idea about Park maintenance in terms of expansion?

So Park maintenance, absolutely. One of the things so with this agile mapper product that we've been talking a lot about is helping with trails, sidewalks, sort of like other pieces there. And then again, with the imagery that we have also looking at, you could think about like park benches and water, waterfowl, like all those sorts of things that you would find in a park. So really, again, you step way back where we started with potholes, cracks, and really roads has now expanded into sort of infrastructure and really assets in general physical assets in the world.

To the question about pandemic,

you know, we certainly we went, we went digital pretty quickly, we had the opportunity to sort of Shut down our offices that we took advantage of when, when this all started. At the time, that was super risky not knowing sort of my glass. In retrospect, it's been terrific. You know, I think that, well, myself and a lot of our employees and colleagues would sort of love to go to an office. But I think with the caveat that you know, when it's safe to do so, and all that kind of stuff. So I think that's certainly been one aspect of it, and which, quickly transitioning to a remote environment. You know, for me, the biggest change with the remote environment is that I think robotics has gotten to the point now where a lot of our sort of business and interactions are more established. And so I think we can you know, we were interacting with all those same people for quite a lot of time and so we created those relationships that I think video chats and things are not a problem. I'll definitely say that one that would still make me nervous is like if I think back like four years ago, when we're robotics was starting out, I would be much more nervous about a completely remote environment just because of the pace of a startup at that early phase. That That seems difficult to the sort of like hiring question. So we are bringing in new salespeople as we've been sort of like seeing more and more growth around the country. And so one giant question for us, and I know lots of other organizations have done this. But for us, it will be new is digitally onboarding someone getting them used to sort of our culture and our people. You know, I think all of those are sort of new things that we're going to work through and learn about and hopefully be successful. I think we'll be successful at them. But yeah, well, we'll never be screw up. We always do usually bounce back, though.

So as we as we wrap up, I want to just say in terms of Pittsburgh's AI community, what advice do you want to give our economic development leaders in terms of leverage The capability here to create jobs to create growth, business growth. So if you had your magic wand and you wanted to say something or do something, what would it be? Ah,

I feel that's a loaded question because the obvious one I just want to spit out is capital. Right? Because capital will drive all the startup pieces. But I would actually go one step beyond that and have a slightly more subtle answer, which would be one of the things that I found successful with robotics, I think, where we really sort of levered the idea of like, incredibly advanced technology, married to an industry that maybe hasn't seen that before, would be more about trying to connect those kinds of dots. So not AI interacting with other advanced technology companies, but rather AI companies or interested parties, interacting with industries that don't have AI in them and trying to understand is there some way to bridge that gap. And so trying to create opportunities to network, outside AI, I think one, one problem that we've found in our own groups, but also just kind of I think our own experience and how this has worked is that AI can become a very like insular sort of group in which you're sort of constantly chasing, like, what's the new neural network structure? What's the new look. But I think as a business as like a economic development sort of oriented thing. I think the absolute most critical pieces actually get completely outside of all of that someone who has no idea what a neural network is, ask them what they're doing on a daily basis, and then sort of try to connect the dots on like, maybe there's an opportunity to take something that over there is really advanced and apply it to something that is a core problem that might have it. And so, to me, I think that's all about application focuses. I think there's just so many more places to apply this kind of technology. Sort of across industries across the world, all that kind of stuff. It's just a matter of trying to find someone who knows both sections and get those connected. That'd be my view.

So, you know, that's great. That's great reminder and that's what we've tried to do at the tech council trying to get all these different kind of market sectors to be connected, particularly those who are working on innovation and inside tech. So I, I think that one thing I do know about you that since the pandemic I think that you got a smoker in your in

your

chicken of brisket, absolutely. brisket, get no contest, although I have to say chicken is much faster and also comes out really well.

So as you can tell another rock star that's sitting right in our region, he may be working from home but he's working on big stuff, solving problems, check out Roadbotics, you can find Benjamin Smith on LinkedIn. If you want to reach out to him and anything he's very accessible and he's very interested in all things Pittsburgh, even though he has adopted this as his hometown. So on that note, I am gonna sign off but we have a great week ahead. I mean, on Thursday, we have Paul Mango, who is at the health, health and human services, working on project warp speed. Don't miss that. We have our Athena winner at the end of the week. It's just sort of nonstop. We're here to serve all of you. This is Audrey Russo signing off. See you tomorrow.

Thank you. Thank you.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai