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Sep. 23, 2013 12:15 pm

Baltimore Robotics Expo TONIGHT shows what could be city robotics’ home

Organizers of the Baltimore Robotics Expo want to turn the expo's location into a permanent, competitive robotics practice facility for Baltimore city students. Is its location next to a methadone clinic a problem or an opportunity?

Members of Western High School's RoboDoves robotics team with their FIRST robot at Saturday's Battle O' Baltimore scrimmage.

Full disclosure: The Baltimore Robotics Expo is a Baltimore Innovation Week event. Technical.ly Baltimore organizes Baltimore Innovation Week.

Competitive robotics that pits teams of engineering-loving middle and high school students against one another in timed matches is slowly gaining a foothold in Baltimore city’s public schools. In the last year, Baltimore City Public Schools sponsored three such competitions, including May’s Hopkins Robotics Cup, the first championship for VEX robotics teams from Baltimore city public schools.

But if you ask Ed Mullin, the self-styled robotics guy in Baltimore’s tech community, these developments aren’t enough for competitions that can have significant benefits for the students who participate — nonprofit FIRST, in whose robotics events several city public schools compete every year, will distribute $17 million in college scholarships to high school juniors and seniors in 2014.

What the city needs, he believes, is a dedicated robotics center reserved specifically for student robotics teams and their coaches, a place where teams can practice after school and on weekends, as well as where students new to competitive robotics could get hands-on training prior to joining teams affiliated with their own schools.

“Get a big warehouse to play in, make it safe, set up the fields, invite the best teams and mentors and enlightened business people from the area, and just like a well-run basketball or football program, the rest will take care of itself,” Mullin said by e-mail.

He’s nothing if not optimistic, and so, this afternoon, Mullin is hosting a city robotics expo inside a building he would like to see become such a space, which he has already dubbed the Baltimore City Robotics Center.

RSVP to the free Baltimore Robotics Expo here.

Starting at 3 p.m., VEX and FIRST robotics teams from several city schools will demo the robots they build from scratch and compete with during the school year. The Western High School all-female RoboDoves, who competed in the VEX Robotics World Championships in the spring, will be there. National organizations that sponsor programs in the Baltimore region, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, will be set up at tables presenting the various robotics offerings for students. As of this morning, more than 170 people had confirmed their attendance.

Watch FIRST robotics compete during Saturday’s Battle O’ Baltimore:

Mullin has toyed for the past year with trying to establish such a robotics gym in Baltimore County but demurred, thinking it a project better suited and more useful to Baltimore city. But there’s no guarantee that the space for today’s robotics expo will become a permanent location for the Baltimore City Robotics Center.

Local residents will recognize the location: 1001 West Pratt Street, adjacent to the B&O Railroad Museum and the site of a methadone clinic opened in 2012 and operated by the University of Maryland Medical System.

Locking down that space, however, hinges on the desires of the Mount Vernon-based Abell Foundation, which owns the building, Mullin said, and has become a steady funder in the region’s innovation economy.

The robotics expo is being held on the second floor of 1001 W. Pratt St., above the first-floor clinic, although there remains a large amount of available square footage on the first floor currently being used for miscellaneous storage that Mullin has his eye on.

Ed Mullin, left, surveying the space for today's expo. On the right: Paul Mincarelli, an AmeriCorps Vista fellow helping Mullin open a permanent city robotics center.

Ed Mullin, left, surveying the space for today’s expo. On the right: Paul Mincarelli, an AmeriCorps Vista fellow with the Maryland Out of School Time Network, who is helping Mullin open a permanent city robotics center.

The first-floor room is the former home of an adult daycare facility for senior citizens. During an afternoon tour of the building last week, Mullin told Technical.ly Baltimore that the first floor of 1001 West Pratt — after substantial rehabbing, naturally — would serve as a prime location for a city robotics center, with its high ceilings, ample space for setting up robotics fields and ground-floor entrance, which would make it easy to tote robots into and out of the building.

Abell Foundation president Robert Embry agreed to let Mullin use a large, furnished, carpeted room on the second floor of 1001 W. Pratt St. at no charge for today’s robotics expo. Mullin said Embry seems receptive to the idea of a robotics center located at 1001 W. Pratt St.

As a search on the MDLANDREC database shows, the building at 1001 W. Pratt St. is owned by West Pratt Holdings, LLC.

  • West Pratt Holdings purchased that building and 1101 W. Pratt St. for $3 million in late 2011 from drug-treatment facility Baltimore Behavioral Health, still housed at 1101 W. Pratt St. and close to being sold after declaring bankruptcy in 2012.
  • Embry is the resident agent for West Pratt Holdings, from which the University of Maryland leases some space on the first floor of 1001 W. Pratt St. for its methadone clinic, much to the chagrin of Hollins Market neighborhood residents.

Since the clinic opened, residents have complained of crime, vandalism, drug dealing and loitering, the kind of claims that often follow NIMBY concerns about treatment facilities.

1001 West Pratt Street

Location of today’s robotics expo: the second floor of 1001 West Pratt Street.

Hollins Market homeowners have been clamoring for a Charm City Circulator Orange Route bus stop to be relocated two blocks down from its present position to in front of clinic at 1001 W. Pratt St. Neighborhood residents, in e-mails with Technically Baltimore, have mentioned collecting needles and drug paraphernalia around where the Circulator stop is now.

While some might think Mullin crazy for wanting a permanent robotics gym for students in the same building as a methadone clinic, some Hollins Market residents are thrilled about the idea.

“I and many of my neighbors would be delighted if Abell brought something to Hollins Market which would have positive spin-off effects on the community, such as a robotics center,” said Robert Meyer, a member of the Hollins Roundhouse Community Association. Technically Baltimore has been told that the Abell Foundation is contemplating using the available space inside 1001 W. Pratt St. for a new adult daycare facility.

“We’re already struggling with trash, loitering and open-air drug markets contributed to by some of Abell’s existing tenants,” said Meyer, an attorney who moved to the neighborhood in early 2012, and owns several commercial and residential properties “in the immediate vicinity” of Hollins Market.

Former RoboDove Indya Dodson graduated from Western High School in the spring and now studies electrical engineering at Capitol College.

Former RoboDove Indya Dodson graduated from Western High School in the spring and now studies electrical engineering at Capitol College.

Instead of fostering a “further clustering of additional social services facilities,” he said via e-mail, Meyer hopes to see Abell throw its weight behind Mullin’s vision of a city robotics center located right next to the B&O Railroad Museum.

It’s a hope Mullin shares, and a vision he’ll aim to impress upon Abell president Robert Embry, whom Mullin said is planning to attend this afternoon’s expo.

Given the chance, as Mullin has said before, he’d remake Baltimore into “Robot City,” using area robotics competitions as a pathway for promising students to snag jobs at major corporations like Northrop Grumman and slots at prestigious universities.

The Baltimore City Robotics Center could be the anchor institution for that effort.

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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