Join us to participate in the upcoming 2019 City:One Challenge. 

Street Bots

What if there was a Roomba-like bot big enough to help us rapid prototype better streets? Street Bots will do just that.

Photo of Joe Nickol
3 0

Written by

Pittsburgh is the international leader in robotics research and development. We propose a two part development of a robotically enabled mobile printing technology (bots) that will serve to artfully remake Pittsburgh’s existing right-of-way. 


The first bot will collect arterial and primary road path data feeds from transit services, ridesharing companies, bikeshare, eScooters, connected vehicles, delivery companies, and opt-in services such as social media check-ins, Strava or Nike Run Club and translate that data into colored stripes along the outside cartway of the street. The colored stripes would be keyed to the movement type and its thickness relatively scaled to the amount of use that it receives from that particular mode. The amount of use would not be vehicle based but people based to reflect the density of people or parcel movement to reflect the mode’s efficiency in moving people and objects around. In addition to providing an artful touch to the street, the PathBot would describe to users routes people using similar modes have safely traveled before, encouraging more use along that path. It would also allow advocates for a particular mode down a particular street a visual incentive to vote with their mode to educate users sharing the road by other modes and policy makers who are charged with making streets for everyone. 


The second bot will use CAD design prototypes to “print” a new curb-to-curb street layout in full color, greatly reducing the time necessary to install and test new street configurations and designs. It will be used for both fun and functional applications. StreetMaker can be used to quickly install designed artwork for a festival, bike, scooter, or bus lanes for enhanced transportation, or wayfinding markings for a 5k. The paint would be temporary chalk paint allowing for easy removal and replacement. It might even account for existing striping to apply a temporary cover up to avoid user confusion. The coordinates of the as-built street could then readily broadcast to connected vehicles and services to improve functionality. 

The two-bot solution embraces the Pittsburgh Challenge of improving the commute by:

1. Enabling “footprints” through physical data visualization to give street users confidence in their chosen mode along a particular path. 

2. Provide intuitive and clear wayfinding for both explorers and regular commuters alike

3. Showing the overlap in Pittsburgh’s mobility suite to underscore the number of options and the connections between them

4. Creating kinetic art pieces in the street that allow users to experience street use in a new way

5. Leveraging this user data and responsive design solutions to quickly “print” new street designs and test their ability to meet current demand and influence behavior of future demand before spending millions on new permanent street designs

6. Unlock cultural and recreational uses of streets in powerful, dynamic ways with temporary street makeover capabilities

Describe who will use your solution (1,000 characters)

Pittsburgh was one of the country’s first cities to establish and hire a mobility department (DOMI). We propose that for the pilot period this entity is the primary “user” for the solution. Over time, this type of department in cities around the world could be the keeper of the bots and partner with other organizations and firms in the use of the technology’s products. Of course, the real users are the end users: the bicyclist who reaches a fork in the road and has the visual information in front of her to intentionally choose the well worn path or the road less traveled; the neighborhood group that wants to improve crosswalks by organizing Strava walks; the retailer who wishes to understand how people move past his store; transit and rideshare users who might benefit from dedicated lanes; and the event organizer who wants to remake a street to commemorate this year’s theme.

Describe your solution's stage of development

  • Initial Design - you are still exploring the idea and have not tested it with users

Tell us about your team or organization (500 characters)

YARD & Company ( is an urban growth firm that uncovers demand for extraordinary places and crafts design & development strategies for shared investment in their future. As this is still in the idea stage, we are early in the team building process with known partners identified but not yet confirmed due to funding requirements.

Size of your team or organization

  • 2-10

Funding Request

  • $100,000

Describe how you would pilot your idea (1000 characters)

The pilot project would include one or both bots, depending on the available funding from the Challenge and outside sources that the Challenge may leverage. Once a working prototype is developed, a corridor that experiences dynamic use would be selected to pilot the prototype. The PathBot portion of the pilot would require a runtime of at least 2-4 weeks to generate sufficient data to visualize. The StreetMaker bot could be prototyped on a closed course at first, then rolled out to an actual street to demonstrate its ability to reformat that street overnight. After the pilot stage, refinements would be made in a development phase to both bots. While the end user of both bot’s products are the general public and transportation user, the customer for the bots is likely not a private entity. The market for this hardware would be DOTs at state and local levels. Software, design protocols, and other program packages could be marketed and sold on a subscription or for-purchase basis.

Describe how you would measure the success of your pilot (1000 characters)

Success would not be a working technology as the technological capabilities exist to create the bots. True success would come in the artful demonstration of the many users streets support and the creative reimagining of those streets without spending millions on completely overhauling the streets. Success would allow us with one hand to visualize in more-or-less realtime how we move people and goods throughout the city and, on the other, adapt to rapidly changing technological requirements for our street-based mobility systems. However, the one thing that does not change is that our streets need to be, at their core, places for people. So, in the end, true success would be safer, more vibrant and active streets for us not only to commute through but also spend time on.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Diana Avart

Thank you for the submission, Joe! I am curious about the logistics of this idea. Are the robots out and about while cars/bikes/buses/pedestrians continue to go about as normal or do the areas need to be shut down from traffic in order to create visual representations of their findings with the temporary chalk paint?

- Diana, Facilitator

Photo of Joe Nickol

Diana, great question. The idea is modeled off of the Nike Chalk Bot that was used in the Tour de France awhile ago. It also happened to be designed and built in Pittsburgh. The PathBot would use quick drying chalk lines or repeated icons that would require minimum street downtime and it could even run at night with less traffic. The StreetMaker, however, would require the temporary closure of a street until the linework and/or art work has been applied. Again, that could be done at night if desired.

Photo of Diana Avart

That makes total sense. I would think between using quick drying paint and doing things during off-peak hours it would be similar to having small road updates done, just requiring some cones and a short detour during that time. That is also great to hear that it was designed and built in Pittsburgh - it would be great to see it put to use here!