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Red Whittaker with his namesake, Red Rover II. Hours after Google announced its Lunar X Prize, Whittaker threw his ’bot in the ring. (John Fleck)

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?

In order for the rover to photograph itself on the moon (another Google requirement), the camera team is positioning a large parabolic mirror on the robot’s side, much like a bus mirror. This should also yield a “money shot” showing sponsor logos, the rover, and (perhaps) Earth. (There’s also talk of having the rover’s bulldozer-like treads imprint a sponsor’s logo or other design in the lunar dust.)

Red Rover will roll up as close to the Apollo lander as possible without trampling any footprints, and with its zoom lens try to photograph the famous “We Came in Peace For All Mankind” plaque on the lander base.

Whittaker has no doubt that his rover will be up to the task. “The tough nuts are the precision landing and a soft landing,” he told the assembled Google Lunar X Prize teams and the press in May. “When we nail that, it’s an easy journey. No matter what it takes, the robot will get us there.”

WHITTAKER’S CONFIDENCE comes from a lifetime of working with machines. Born in 1948, he grew up mainly in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a railroad town nestled in a small valley near Altoona. His mother was a chemist who taught school, his father a World War II bombardier who later sold explosives for mining and road construction.

His parents encouraged him to roam, and by age six he was raiding the local junkyard for parts. One of his first constructions was a rocketship, with rudimentary propulsion cooked up from a chemistry set. At 16 he fixed up a Jaguar XK-120 (he ended up driving it for years), and he took a job swinging a hammer on the railroad lines, where he learned that bending iron requires as much finesse as brute force.

In the late 1960s, he left Pennsylvania for Princeton University, intending to study civil engineering, but interrupted his education to enlist in the Marines, one eye on the educational benefits. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July 1969, Whittaker was in basic training. He has no memory of the event; on Parris Island, South Carolina, he says, there was “no news in, no news out.”

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.

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