Monongahela robotics engineer finds time for trio of diverse pursuits

Monongahela resident Rich Pantaleo juggles a day job as a robotics engineer with side pursuits of furniture-making, photography and playing in a rock band.

Monongahela resident Rich Pantaleo, 30, is a modern-day Renaissance man.
Monongahela resident Rich Pantaleo, 30, is a modern-day Renaissance man.
Monongahela resident Rich Pantaleo, 30, is a modern-day Renaissance man.
Monongahela resident Rich Pantaleo, 30, is a modern-day Renaissance man.
Monongahela resident Rich Pantaleo, 30, is a modern-day Renaissance man.

While Rich Pantaleo studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the electives he chose was a class in photography. He also joined the robotics club.

Together, the class and club paved the way for his current dual career – owner of a photography enterprise and a robotics engineer for National Robotics Engineering Center, a research facility in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood owned by CMU.

Hired shortly after graduating, Pantaleo, 30, has worked on some interesting robotics projects. One took him to South Africa for three weeks, where he was part of a team trying to develop a robotics system for mapping an underground platinum mining operation. Part of that effort also took him to Croatia, where he worked with a mining company to turn a remote-controlled dozer into a fully automated one.

Another trip, this time to California, had him work in the strawberry fields designing a robotic plant sorting system. Another project had him design a sensor pod for the remote measurement of steel slabs for a steel mill in Illinois.

Rich Pantaleo’s photo of the old Donora-Webster Bridge 

For the military, he worked on a team that created a “robotic wheel” that enables vehicles to move through a wide variety of terrain – swamp, desert, and dirt and paved roads. Currently, he’s engrossed in a project for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to improve the survivability of military vehicles.

“Traditionally, the answer to improved survivability was to add more armor, but in this age of advanced weaponry that is not always practical,” he said. “Instead, we’re working on a robotic wheel that can move in front of an incoming ordnance.”

Pantaleo said he always loved making things with his hands, which is why he likes robotics – for its hands-on attributes. As a child, his maternal grandfather, George Karabin, a master carpenter for Donora Lumber Co., taught him how to use hand tools. This eventually led to his woodworking interests, which initially saw him making serving trays for family as Christmas gifts.

A photo of Weirton Steel by Rich Pantaleo 

For the last 10 years, he’s been turning out furniture (end and coffee tables, lamps, a clock case and serving trays) at his Monongahela home workshop that he gives to friends as wedding presents.

In addition to his work and furniture-making, he is now focusing on photography.

“I started taking photos in high school with a digital camera at a time when I was an avid rail fan,” he said. “I saw awesome rail photos on the internet, wondered if I could do the same and drove around taking photos of locomotives.”

A breakthrough moment came about when he enrolled in a black-and-white photo class at CMU.

“There, I performed the rites of passage of photography: shooting on an SLR, developing my own film, making my own prints from negatives and working long nights in the darkroom,” he writes on his photography website, www.monvalleyphotoworks.com. “It let me see that photography could be an art form.”

Pantaleo put his photographic endeavors on hold after the end of the photography class, partly because he no longer had access to the darkroom, partly because he was too involved with his engineering studies. But in 2012, with his student loans paid off, he invested in a new digital camera and resumed his picture-taking passion with a focus on the old industrial sites of the Mon Valley.

A rocking cat crafted by Rich Pantaleo 
Photo courtesy of Rich Pantaleo

On his website, which he promotes through social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, he sells prints of images he’s taken from Greene County north to Pittsburgh. At the moment, he has between 800 and 900 photos for sale and also publishes an annual Mon Valley-themed calendar.

In the last couple of years, he’s gone back to shooting on film rather than digitally and said he’s fallen in love with the work he gets on medium format film.

“I now take fewer photos, but the results are better,” he said.

There’s yet another side to Pantaleo’s multifaceted interests, one he attributes to his father, Rich, a retired instrumental music teacher for Ringgold School District. His father encouraged all three of his children to play an instrument, and his childhood home was full of music.

A wine rack built by Rich Pantaleo 
Courtesy of Rich Pantaleo

“Kate plays the flute, Regina plays the clarinet and I play trumpet and piano,” Pantaleo said. “In two annual concerts at Ringgold Middle School, Regina and I play in the Greater Monongahela Area Community Band, which my dad directs. I also play trumpet during the summer for Too Many Tubas at nursing homes and church festivals.”

Putting his piano talents to the test, he also plays electric keyboard for the Indie rock band, Good Ship Gibraltar, at gigs in and around Pittsburgh. As if all his interests aren’t enough to fill up his appointment book to the max, he has another project he hopes to start on soon.

“I’ve been thinking of publishing a photo coffee table book on the coal mines of our region,” he said. “But I haven’t yet been able to work out the publication details.”