SciTech

Professor leads team in Google Challenge to land robot on moon

Red Whittaker and a team of engineers are participating in the Google Challenge, building a robot that is anticipated to land on the moon. Shown above is an artist’s depiction of the various components of the robot on the surface of the moon.  (credit: Courtesy of Astrobotic Technology) Red Whittaker and a team of engineers are participating in the Google Challenge, building a robot that is anticipated to land on the moon. Shown above is an artist’s depiction of the various components of the robot on the surface of the moon. (credit: Courtesy of Astrobotic Technology)

The weekly civil environmental engineering lecture had the honor of hosting Professor William “Red” Whittaker, the Fredkin Research Professor of Robotics in Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and a National Academy of Engineering member. His lecture, titled “Robots at Work ... on Earth and Beyond,” highlighted the various projects he and his teams have accomplished over the past decades. A few of his early projects include a robot that navigated and mapped dangerous coal mines and a sewer robot that could spot problems in city sewers.

“In the beginning, you don’t have to be very good, just first,” Whittaker said. Building such a legacy, however, takes time and diligent work. “It takes teams that do a lot, mechanics, electronics, software, and ideas. Most people begin without qualifications or certifications, and they just begin to do something.”
Smaller ‘cash cow’ projects aside, Whittaker is more renowned for his work during nuclear crises, such as the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979. “It’s one of those events that comes from nowhere and shakes the world, and one way or another resourceful humans will respond and do something,” he said.

Whittaker worked on automated cranes, which helped pour concrete to cover surface contamination; the Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle, which, according to his website, “brought back the first footage from the flooded basement of the damaged reactor;” and Pioneer, which did recovery and recon work.
During the Three-Mile incident, Whittaker and his team were commissioned to create a machine that would help with cleanup of the area. After surveying the site, the team created wooden models that illustrated what could be done, and soon after received a contract for the work in October 1983.
To Whittaker, mobility is one of the most important characteristics a robot can possess. “Tools don’t mean much if you can’t get them up to where you are going,” he said.

His more recent work is related to autonomous car design and space exploration. Just three years ago, Whittaker and his team, “Tartan Racing,” won the 2007 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge, a $2 million contest for designing an autonomous vehicle. Whittaker currently holds the position of Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of Astrobotic Technology, a company specializing in “commercial space enterprise.”

According to the website astrobotictech.com, Whittaker has “won more than 80 contracts from NASA, the U.S. Energy Department and the Defense Department.”

He also is the leader of team Astrobotic, one of 29 teams competing in the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize, a competition that challenges teams to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit data about the surface of the moon back to Earth.

“It has the kind of sensors [and software] on it that are on race vehicles. The simplicity is that it is one monolithic piece; that keeps it simple. [It has] one thruster, and has all the considerations you would be familiar with in terms of structure and dynamics,” Whittaker explained.

Currently, he expects his team to launch in December of 2013. “Once you are leading something, people expect you to win. Here’s the thing— if you do 99 percent of it right, it doesn’t matter because all you have to do is screw up one thing. Once you are close enough, there are two choices, you can either land or crash.”

Whittaker mentioned the everyday applications for the technology he worked on. One example is the automatic brakes in newer car models.

“Before that [existed], there would be technical demonstration principles, and there comes the question: Would anybody buy this? We put it in the high price models.” The two demographic groups affected would be young drivers, who do not have adequate control over their vehicles, and older drivers. Although he states there would be a large increase in accident reduction, there also exists insurance-related backlash.

“Good drivers get helped, but bad drivers get their stats reported to [an] insurance company,” he added, laughing. No matter the project, Whittaker is excited to push the boundaries of both technological and outer space frontiers.

“It’s never about the money,” Whittaker said, reflecting on his experiences. In closing, he posed another question to the audience, “Is there another place in the universe where this could have happened?”