Red and The Robots
Red Whittaker’s rovers have already gone where no robot has gone before. Will one of them make it to the moon?
- By Geoffrey Little
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
(Page 3 of 5)
After two years of service, he returned to Princeton, G.I. Bill in hand. Following graduation in 1973, he continued on to Carnegie Mellon, where in 1979 he received his doctorate. That year, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Harrisburg had a partial meltdown. In response, Whittaker and his colleagues began building robots to monitor and clean the reactor’s contaminated basement. The experience spurred him to found CMU’s Field Robotics Center.
In the mid-1980s, space beckoned. When NASA initiated a new class of low-cost Discovery planetary missions, Whittaker began pitching proposals, but none succeeded. The space agency did, however, fund a meteorite-hunting robot, Zoë, which the CMU team operated in Antarctica and Chile’s Atacama desert. On another Antarctic expedition, a walking robot named Dante tried to rappel into an active volcano, but got stalled by a kink in its fiber optic cable. A later version, Dante II, descended into an Alaskan volcano, a simulation of the harsh conditions on other worlds.
Meanwhile, Whittaker continued building robots for dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs on Earth. After the 2002 collapse of the Quecreek mine in central Pennsylvania, which trapped nine coal miners, Whittaker and his students built two subterranean robots, Groundhog and Ferret, to show that they could map mines and perhaps prevent future flooding accidents. In 2004, Whittaker entered the first DARPA challenge, which he won on his third try, in 2007. Not all of his machines have worked perfectly, but all have worked, and many have been built on a tight schedule.
On a visit to Robot City last summer, I saw the Astrobotic team putting the prototype Red Rover through rigorous testing. In the back seat of a van that serves as a makeshift mission control, CMU software engineer Nathaniel Fairfield and a colleague used three laptops to run the rover’s navigation, safety, and control systems. The operators, who also wrote the software, could see what the robot saw as it drove, with a five-second delay built in to simulate actual moon operations. In some situations, the rover will have to “think” for itself without human input—for example, when navigating a slope.
“When are we in trouble?” asks Fairfield, his eye on a horizon indicator that would show if the rover were tilting too much.
“At 20 degrees,” his copilot says.
“We’re okay then.” In Earth gravity, Fairfield explains, the rover stays balanced because of its weight. On the moon, it will be six times lighter, so a 20-degree tilt could place it in danger of tipping over.
The details for these and other operations are figured out in the three-story High Bay, the working heart of the Robotics Center, located back on the main CMU campus. There I see a small fleet of machines, all built by Whittaker and his colleagues. The meteorite-hunting Nomad stands sentry near the door, wearing the NASA “meatball” logo. A few yards away sits Zoë, the solar-powered rover that in 2004 roamed more than 120 miles through the Atacama desert. An automated boat, Sol, awaits a dip in nearby Schenley pond. It’s a robotic wonderland.