Carnegie Mellon University
February 14, 2013

News Brief: Carnegie Mellon's "Red" Whittaker Leads NASA Study To Keep Planetary Rovers Rolling

Contact: Byron Spice/ 412-268-9068 /

Red WhittakerPITTSBURGH—William "Red" Whittaker, director of Carnegie Mellon Univesity's Field Robotics Center and CEO of Astrobotic Technology Inc., will lead a NASA-funded study to figure out how robots such as the Mars rover Curiosity can avoid getting stuck in sinking sand or similarly hazardous terrain.

The study is one of eight advanced robotics projects funded by NASA as part of the Obama administration's National Robotics Initiative (NRI). Carnegie Mellon and Astrobotic each were awarded contracts of $249,000 and $512,000, respectively, from NASA for their portions of the study.

"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 said, noting one Mars rover has been entrapped by sinking in terrain and the Apollo astronauts once had to push their moon buggy out of trouble.

"Current terrain modeling is geometric, considering shape, slope and appearance of the surface," he added. "This research embarks to sense, model and avoid non-geometric hazards such as sinkage and slippage before a robot is inextricably immobilized."

The NRI is a multi-agency federal effort to encourage innovative collaborative research that combines computer and systems science with mechanical, electrical and materials engineering and social, behavioral and economic sciences.