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30 Years Ago

Remembering Three Mile Island

Whittaker team

The red hair that spawned his nickname has faded to a silvery white. But decades after Carnegie Mellon Robotics Professor William "Red" Whittaker helped to clean up a meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., his passion for robotics burns as brightly as ever.

Whittaker, who is one of the world's most famous roboticists — as well as an entrepreneur — launched his career developing robots to help clean up the meltdown at TMI, which occurred on March 28, 1979. He and his students designed and built three varieties of bots for the job.

The team also included John Bares, now director of Carnegie Mellon's National Robotics Engineering Center; Jim Osborn, now executive director of Carnegie Mellon's Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center; engineering alums Leona Champeny Bares (E '85, '87), Brian Smith (E '77) and Chris Fromme (E '85); and technical staff Gary Baun (A '83) and Clark McDonald.

Two of the robots — the Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle and the Core Sampler, built in 1984 and 1985, respectively — were sent into the flooded basement of the damaged reactor building and operated remotely.

They were outfitted with cameras, lights, radiation detectors, vacuums, scoops, scrapers, drills and a high-pressure spray nozzle. They surveyed the site, sent back information and drilled core samples to measure the radiation level of the basement walls. The robots worked for four years inside the reactor building and remain there to this day.

The third robot, a stainless steel giant called Workhorse, was never used. Ultimately, Whittaker bought it back from General Public Utilities Corp. (GPU), owner of TMI at the time of the accident, for $1. It's on display at the Robotics Institute's National Robotics Engineering Center in the Lawrenceville area of Pittsburgh.

This month, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the TMI accident, the State Museum of Pennsylvania, located in Harrisburg, is unveiling an exhibit that will display one of the two original Remote Reconnaissance Vehicles Whittaker and his students built, along with other related artifacts. In all, it took 10 years to remediate the site at TMI.

"One of these robots performed incredible, extensive and long work in the basement cleanup," Whittaker said. "The plan for the other was to not send it into hot radiation so that it would be guaranteed to remain clean for training, analyzing, tool-building, technique development and hot spares. The basement was a four-year cleanup campaign, so that was a lot of work."

Whittaker celebrated his 60th birthday in Oct. 2008. During his career, he's developed more than 60 robots. Browse his creations here.

Since winning the $2 million DARPA Urban Challenge in Nov. 2007, Whittaker and his company Astrobotic Technology, Inc., have been focused on developing a robot to compete for the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE. The charge is to land a robot on the moon, have it travel 500 meters and transmit a message back to Earth.

Whittaker, however, has more ambitious goals. He hopes to have the rover ready for a December 2010 launch to the moon. After landing, plans call for it to make a trek through the moon's Sea of Tranquility that will take it to the site of the Apollo 11 landing.

Related Links: View Slideshow  |  |  Robotics Institute  |  School of Computer Science

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