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Feb. 11: Carnegie Mellon's William "Red" Whittaker Elected to National Academy of Engineering


Anne Watzman                        
Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon's William "Red" Whittaker
Elected to National Academy of Engineering

RedPITTSBURGH—William L. "Red" Whittaker, Carnegie Mellon University's Fredkin Research Professor of Robotics and chairman and chief technical officer of Astrobotic Technology, Inc., has been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
The NAE with the National Academy of Sciences advises the federal government on questions of policy in science and technology. Membership in the academy honors people who have made important contributions to engineering theory and practice, and who have demonstrated unusual accomplishments in pioneering new and developing fields of technology.
Whittaker was cited "for pioneering contributions to fielded, mobile, autonomous robots." He is known worldwide for developing robots that work in unpredictable environments, like the interiors of abandoned coal mines, the craters of live volcanoes or inside damaged nuclear reactors such as the one at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant near Harrisburg, Pa., which suffered a meltdown in 1979.
"Red richly deserves the honor that the National Academy of Engineering is conferring upon him," said Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon. "He has made extraordinary contributions to engineering research, practice and education. And where outstanding performance in one of these areas would be enough, Red has excelled in all of them. He invented the domain of field robotics, pioneering in the development of autonomous mobile robots that work on their own in natural terrain. He has built dozens of robots that have performed to specification in harsh, difficult conditions while involving his students in the scientific process of discovery and sending them out into the world with real experience under their belts. When it comes to meeting and overcoming scientific challenges, he is a role model for our entire community."
"Red is the truest engineer we have in the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science," said Dean Randal E. Bryant. "He has demonstrated many times his ability to adapt fundamental, scientific principles to solve difficult, real-world problems. His robots employ not only advanced sensor and computing technology, but also many layers of redundancy, so that they can operate reliably in remote and harsh environments. Red's work has extended humankind's reach both on Earth and in space by creating intelligent robots that can work where it is too dangerous or too difficult for people to go."
A faculty member at Carnegie Mellon since 1977, Whittaker founded the Field Robotics and National Robotics Engineering centers, which are part of the Robotics Institute. During his career, he, his colleagues and students have developed more than 60 robots, breaking new ground in space exploration, hazardous waste remediation, agriculture and the development of autonomous vehicle technology that ultimately will impact the traffic on the nation's highways. He is also an outstanding teacher who has inspired countless students and shepherded more than 23 of them through the Ph.D. process.
On Nov. 3, 2007, Whittaker led Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing team to victory as its robotic SUV, Boss, took first place and the $2 million grand prize in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) Urban Challenge in Victorville, Calif. Boss safely navigated 55 miles of urban roads and deftly handled human and robotic traffic, completing the course almost 20 minutes faster than the nearest competitor.    
Currently, as chairman and CTO of Astrobotic Technology, Whittaker is leading an effort to win the $20 million Google Lunar X PRIZE. He is directing the development of Astrobotic's first lunar robot, which has been undergoing field trials for several months. The company's first mission, to win the prize and visit the Apollo 11 landing site with HD video, is set for December 2010. The project is being undertaken in conjunction with research at the Robotics Institute.
"Red Whittaker is a true visionary, and one of the great leaders in our field. He is often called the 'Father of Field Robotics,'" said Robotics Institute Director Matthew T. Mason. "It was Red who first saw the potential for robotics in space exploration, mining, agriculture and other field applications. And, most important, he assembled the teams and the resources to push the field forward - one outstanding robot after another."
Whittaker earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Princeton University and his master's and doctor's degrees in civil engineering from Carnegie Mellon. He is a fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, and a member of the Robotics and Remote Systems Division of the American Nuclear Society, the Center for the Commercial Development of Space and the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board.
In 2002, Whittaker received the Joseph Engelberger Award for outstanding achievement in robotics. He also has been honored with awards from several publications, including Science Digest, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Design News and Fortune. He has received recognition from Pittsburgh-based organizations and the university for teaching excellence and outstanding achievement. In 2007, the university honored him with the title of University Professor, the highest rank the institution confers upon its faculty. He is the first research-track professor to receive such an honor.
Whittaker will be inducted into the academy in a special ceremony at the NAE's annual meeting Oct. 4 in Irvine, Calif. His election brings the current membership of School of Computer Science faculty in the National Academy of Engineering to nine. The others are Manuel Blum, Randal Bryant, Edmund Clarke, Angel Jordan, Pradeep Khosla, Takeo Kanade, Raj Reddy and Daniel Siewiorek. The university currently has a total of 22 NAE members. For the complete list, see


To listen to Red Whittaker (pictured above) discuss his work in field robotics, click here.