Transforming the Belief in What's Possible
William "Red" Whittaker has spent his career pioneering new technologies to explore some of Earth's most dangerous and inhospitable places—so it's no surprise that his next challenge is taking him somewhere out of this world: to the moon.
The Race to the Moon
Although Whittaker, the Fredkin Research Professor of Robotics at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, isn't physically heading to the moon, his technology is. Whittaker is leading a team of researchers intent on winning the Google Lunar X PRIZE, an international race to land a robot on the moon, have it travel 500 meters across the lunar surface, and transmit images and video back to Earth. A grand prize of $20 million will be awarded to the first privately-funded team to complete the mission by 2012.
Sponsored by Internet search-giant Google Inc. and the X Prize Foundation, the competition challenges engineers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. The prize is intended to kick-start space research and development in the private sector.
"Prize competitions have a substantial impact in moving field robotics into its future," Whittaker said. "Each has the effect of a punch of acceleration in technology and in lifting the consciousness, and in transforming the belief in what's possible."
To build a robot capable of withstanding the moon's extreme temperatures, Whittaker enlisted the help of top roboticists and engineers from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Arizona, and partnered with the Raytheon Company, a global leader in defense technologies. Team Astrobotic plans to launch its first moon mission, Tranquility Trek, from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 2010; the mission will explore the Apollo 11 landing site and transmit high-definition images back to Earth.
A New Field
The ambitious undertaking might seem like the stuff of movies, but Whittaker has spent years turning the improbable into a reality. For more than a quarter-century, he's designed robots for jobs that humans simply can't do, earning him the moniker the "Father of Field Robotics."
"For me robots have always been tools, not toys," he said. "And 25 years ago robots were a myth, the stuff of science fiction that for the most part did not exist outside of Hollywood and books."
Fours years after the infamous nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, Whittaker proposed that unmanned, teleoperated robots could enter a site too dangerous for humans. At a time when little was known about the incident, Whittaker and a team of students designed three robots to gather video footage and contaminant samples from the reactor for study. The suggestion was an amazing success: two of the robots still remain on site at the island.
Under Whittaker's direction, the Robotics Institute's Field Robotics Center (FRC) has become the premier hub for field robotics in the world. With the goal of designing and improving automated robots to work in unpredictable environments, researchers at FRC have developed more than 60 robots, which have operated in terrain as diverse as the desert, coal mines, Antarctica, and active volcanoes.
What's so impressive about Whittaker's work, though, is not just where the robots go, but how they get there. Many of the robots rely on sensor networks to determine the optimal course and utilize automated data acquisition to send information to field researchers safely positioned out of harm's way. The Ambler, for example, is a six-legged walking robot with energy-efficient overlapping gaits. The robot can even lose up to two of its legs and still walk, making it ideal for rugged terrains.
For his exceptional contributions to field robotics and to the university, Whittaker was named University Professor in 2007, the highest distinction faculty can achieve at Carnegie Mellon.
The Urban Challenge
Whittaker's work in automated systems extends beyond treacherous environments to everyday situations. He led Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing team, a partnership with General Motors and Caterpillar, which won first place at the 2007 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. The challenge pitted driverless vehicles in a race across a 55-mile street course, complete with traffic signals and other vehicles. Boss, an automated Chevy Tahoe, captured top honors and a $2 million grand prize.
Boss's success at the event was a milestone for Tartan Racing and has significant real-world applications. The perception, planning, and behavioral software that Boss used to reason about traffic and take appropriate actions while navigating safely to its destination could one day be as common as a car radio. Partly in reaction to the victory, and to further develop driverless-vehicle technology, GM and Carnegie Mellon announced the establishment of the Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab (CRL), and extension of the successful Information Technologies CRL.
"Robots sometimes stun the world, inspire a lot of people and change the belief in what is possible," said Whittaker in an interview following the Tartan Racing victory. "We've seen that here—and once the perception of what's possible changes it never goes back."
Celebrating 25 Years
A year and a half later, and coinciding with Whittaker's 60th birthday, the Robotics Institute celebrated the 25th anniversary of field robotics. The two-day event brought together some of the most distinguished experts in the field to pay tribute to the man who founded the discipline and to share recent advancements in the field.
Speaking of his early days, Whittaker said "Twenty-five years ago there was no sense whatsoever of what to do, how to do it, [or] what technologies would unfold…I embarked with that bold ambition to pursue robots beyond the built environment and from there [it was] just the journey of discovery and implementation."
"Of course," he continued, "It's not over. The story isn't done."
If the last 25 years are any indication of what the next 25 will bring, then maybe the moon is isn't such a far off place after all.