Avoiding Sand Traps
Robots have helped humans navigate outer space, land on the moon and explore Mars — but they can still get stuck in the sand. Carnegie Mellon University's internationally renowned roboticist, William "Red" Whittaker, is leading a new NASA-funded study to keep them moving forward.
"Robots are increasingly effective at modeling terrain and navigating from A to B, but robots remain blind to mission-ending sinkage, slippage and buried hazards," Whittaker explained. He noted that one Mars rover has already become entrapped by sinking in hazardous terrain, and the Apollo astronauts once had to push their moon buggy out of trouble.
Whittaker is the director of CMU's Field Robotics Center and the Fredkin University Professor of Robotics, as well as the CEO of Astrobotic Technology. NASA awarded contracts to both Astrobotic and CMU for their portions of the new study, one of eight advanced robotics projects funded by NASA in an effort to advance the frontiers of space exploration.
The winning projects will study topics ranging from Whittaker's planetary rovers to humanoid robotics systems. As part of the National Robotics Initiative, the new studies will support NASA as it plans for a 2025 asteroid mission and human exploration of Mars itself, planned for 2035. Such advances can aid manufacturing and business, even as they support space exploration.
It's hardly the first cutting-edge project for Astrobotic or Whittaker. The company, spun out of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute in 2008 to develop robotic technology for planetary missions, has won nine previous NASA lunar contracts worth $3.6 million.
Aptly, Whittaker's catalyst for founding Astrobotic was a "race to the moon." In partnership with CMU, he has his sights set on winning the Google Lunar X Prize.
The Google Lunar X Prize is the largest international incentive prize to date, with a $20 million grand prize to be awarded to the first privately funded team to successfully land a robot on the moon. The robot must also travel 500 meters and transmit data back to Earth. The 25 teams in competition must accomplish the mission by the end of 2015.
The race presents a unique set of interdisciplinary challenges, particularly suited to CMU's strength in cross-disciplinary cooperation and innovation.
And Astrobotic isn't Whittaker's first transformative company. In 1987, he founded RedZone Robotics, initially to develop robots for the nuclear and military industries and now seeking to solve the problems of aging infrastructure in the wastewater industry. RedZone develops robots to explore and inspect underground sewer pipes, helping municipalities to manage maintenance and rehabilitation.
"All I'm asking for is the moon," he smiled at a recent presentation. Looks like he can handle the sand traps.
Pictured above: William "Red" Whittaker. Photo by John Fleck.