Arizona PBS gets help from telepresence robot

A 5-foot tall robot is helping keep Arizona PBS on the air


April 30, 2020

For the past month, as the COVID-19 pandemic sent most Arizona State University staff home to work, a telepresence robot nicknamed Scotty has been key to keeping the public television station up and running.

On most days, Scotty roams the nearly empty fifth floor of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on the Downtown Phoenix campus, where the Arizona PBS control rooms, studios and offices are located. Scotty has been essential to keeping PBS operations running smoothly during the pandemic. Download Full Image

The robot scoots into the broadcast control center, pausing before rows of television monitors, and then ducks into another room stacked to the ceiling with servers. A broadcast engineer, operating Scotty’s controls from home, monitors how equipment is functioning and troubleshoots if needed.

The Beam robot, made by Suitable Technologies, looks like it was built by stacking an iPad on stilts and mounting the whole thing on a hover board. Equipped with two cameras, speakers and a microphone, it is the next best thing to having a person on site, said Ian MacSpadden, chief technology officer for Cronkite and Arizona PBS.

“A broadcast engineer sitting at home can see and hear everything the robot sees and hears,” McSpadden said. “Otherwise, the teams would have to rely only on the messages of remote computers, which can be vague and not tell the whole story.”

When an on-call engineer receives an alert message from a station system, for example, he or she can log in to Scotty and drive the robot to the problem area for a visual inspection.

“This helps more accurately diagnose an issue and can often save a trip into the station,” McSpadden said.

In addition to providing viewers with news and entertainment programming, it’s important to keep the station on the air because it’s part of the emergency alert and WARN safety systems that help keep families apprised during emergencies, he said.

As helpful as Scotty is, there are some things he’s not equipped to do. One engineer needs to be in the building to operate master control, organizing and playing back all programs seen across the station’s five channels. A second person, a production specialist, puts together segments for the station’s two news shows: “Arizona Horizon,” the daily public affairs program; and the national news program “PBS NewsHour,” which has a western bureau housed in the Cronkite building. Everything else, including taping and editing, is being done from homes.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Scotty was used for remote interviews, building tours and to bring speakers into classes, said Senior Associate Dean Kristin Gilger, who has utilized Scotty to beam in speakers to her classes and to show students in one part of the building what’s going on in another.

She said the idea to bring Scotty to the school came from Innovations Chief Eric Newton, who would sometimes show up at Cronkite meetings via the robot. “Eric would roll into a room, his face filling the screen, and start talking,” she said. “That always drew some double-takes.”

Newton, who nicknamed the robot Scotty in honor of the character on “Star Trek,” said he has always known there are many possible uses for Scotty, but he did not anticipate an epidemic. “The current use is not something we imagined,” he said.

MacSpadden said the robot is working out exactly as hoped, and there is an added benefit — people who are working at home can easily interact with those in the building. “It’s almost like they’re both in the same room,” he said.

The interaction, said broadcast operations supervisor Donald Rump, “is very strange but, at the same time, it’s very interesting.”

Rump said he hopes Scotty can stick around when the health crisis ends and people return to the building in full force. He thinks the robot could be used on holidays and weekends, allowing staff to monitor systems from home.

“It’d be very helpful if we had him or something like that to use in the future,” he said.

Cronkite student Kenzel Williams contributed to this report.

Jamar Younger

Associate Editor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

ASU grad found community, major that tapped into her passions


April 30, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Anna Ciza Deogratias, who’s graduating from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts with a major in communication, began her ASU journey at the Downtown Phoenix campus as a nursing major. ASU communication graduate Anna Ciza Deogratias Anna Ciza Deogratias, who came to ASU from the Phoenix Union High School District, found her passion for communication close to home, at ASU's Downtown Phoenix campus. Download Full Image

“I entered as a nursing major because that's what my parents wanted me to do and, of course, I wanted to make them proud,” said Deogratias, who came to ASU after graduating from the Phoenix Union High School District. “I tried it for a semester, but I quickly realized that I was wasting my time and opportunities to learn things that I was passionate about.

“I remember scrolling down through the ASU website in my search for another major. Once I clicked on the major map for communication and saw the classes I would take, I realized this was the major I was looking for!” she said. “I love talking to people and learning about different cultures, so I was really excited.”

She eventually added a minor in theater to her program, too, from ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

As a first-generation college student, the one thing Deogratias said she worried about most when deciding on which university to attend was how she was going to pay for her education.

“My parents didn’t have the money to pay for my education, so I really had to apply for a lot of scholarships and attend the university that offered me the most money. ASU did that for me,” she said. “Plus, the Downtown Phoenix campus was close to home and the low teacher-to-student ratio was really nice.” 

Deogratias said she had support from a number of scholarships during her undergraduate years, including the Doran Community Scholars Program, Sun Devil Family Association Scholarship, Benjamin Gilman Scholarship, a Phoenix Union High School District Scholarship, a Kiwanis Club of Phoenix Scholarship, a Be A Leader Foundation Scholarship and College Success Arizona.

She also worked as a College of Integrative Sciences and Arts community assistant in the Taylor Place residence hall her sophomore and junior years.

“I had such an amazing experience and learned a lot about how to lead people, plan events and solve problems. The CA position helped me to be more confident, especially when it came to speaking in front of people,” Deogratias said. “I used to be a very shy person when I first moved from Tanzania to the U.S. at the age of 9, and I still can't believe I grew out of that!

“I also got close to some of my coworkers, and some of the residents I met during my first year as a CA have become some of my closest friends,” she said. “It was a really fun, rewarding job to have as a college student and I’m grateful that I had that opportunity.”

Anna shared more with ASU Now about her undergraduate experience and her future plans.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I learned to find a balance between my social life and school. When I first started, I was so super focused on school that I forgot to enjoy college. And that’s where my friends that I met at ASU came in. They would invite me to go out to eat, get ice cream, see movies or just simply hang out.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?  

A: In the four years I have been here at ASU, this semester was the second time I had the opportunity to be taught by a black professor, whom I had for the African American Theatre class taught at Tempe campus. His name is Donta McGilvery. I have learned a lot in that class and one of the most important lessons he taught me was to not let anyone underestimate me and the potential that I have — whether that be a professor telling me that the paper I wrote wasn’t good or getting rejected by “important” people. No matter what, I should strive to make my dreams come true for the next person to be able to start theirs.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: To be still and know that it’s going to be OK. It may not be OK now, but trust me, it’s going to be OK.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: For studying, I loved reserving a room in the library at the Downtown Phoenix campus or studying in one of the lounges in Taylor Place. The tables outside of Starbucks were a really nice spot to meet with friends.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A:  I plan to take the GRE exam and pursue a journalism master’s program in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School. I also hope to get hired by a TV station, because I want to work in the TV/film industry. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle the diversity problem in Hollywood. I think having people of color and their stories told is so important. I remember when I first saw Lupita Nyong'o on screen one day — the feelings I had were just indescribable. I still have goosebumps every time I see her speak or on screen. I want the next African child to have the same feelings and know that it really is possible.

Maureen Roen

Manager, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts

602-496-1454