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?

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)
Air & Space Magazine

The scraping of metal wheels on loose rocks and the clicking sounds of mechanical actuators alert me to the lunar rover’s presence before I see it. Turning, I come face to face with the robot as it emerges from a shallow ditch, its two mast-mounted camera “eyes” gazing at the ground, then tilting up to scout a way forward.

Less than five feet tall and three feet across, it’s an unassuming ’bot: a truncated pyramid plastered with solar panels, moving on four wheels tucked underneath. As it passes me, the rover steers off to the right and trundles slowly on a 500-yard trek toward its goal: a crude mockup of the Apollo 11 lunar lander base, spray-painted gold—an incongruous sight here on the banks of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh.

In May 2010, a descendant of this rover is scheduled to visit the actual Apollo 11 landing site on the moon in an attempt to claim the $25 million Google Lunar X Prize for its creators, Astrobotic Technology. A spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center, Astrobotic is led by the center’s founder, William Whittaker, known to all as Red.

Every other Friday, this second generation prototype of Red Rover—as the robot is named—goes for a test run here at Carnegie’s Robot City, a 40-acre strip of shale and gravel at Pittsburgh’s last working steel mill, which closed in 1979. Coincidentally, that was the year Whittaker finished his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University and began building autonomous machines that would eventually explore active volcanoes in Alaska, map coal mines in central Pennsylvania, and search for meteorites in Antarctica.

Now one of the world’s foremost roboticists, Whittaker, 60, recently added a racing title to his storied career. In November 2007 he won the $2 million top prize in the DARPA Urban Challenge with a robotic vehicle capable of driving itself in simulated traffic over a 60-mile course. His hard-charging Chevy Tahoe, Boss, outran all 11 finalists, winning the final event by 20 minutes.

I first met Whittaker during that race, which was held in the California desert town of Victorville. Draping a red CMU sweatshirt over his bald head to shade his fair skin from the Mojave sun, he peered out like some hooded wizard. A tall man, Whittaker habitually leans into conversations and speaks with a quiet intensity. That day, even as he was in hot pursuit of the DARPA prize, his mind was on the moon.

In fact, it has been for years. While NASA has focused on sending robots like Spirit and Opportunity to Mars, Whittaker says the moon has been “under-considered by the mainline space robotics community.” And although he has built several robots for NASA, none has made it off Earth, let alone to the moon. So when the X Prize Foundation and Google announced their lunar contest on September 13, 2007, within hours Whittaker dashed off a check for the first installment of the $10,000 registration fee and overnighted it to the foundation. “There was an immediate attraction” to the lunar competition, he says. “I saw it as being inspirational, visionary, a very bold step for robotics.” Within 24 hours he assembled “a dozen compatriots” for the project. Among them were David Wettergreen, a CMU associate professor of computing who has worked with Whittaker on exploration robots for 20 years, and Sam Harbaugh, a 1958 Carnegie grad and systems engineer, “basically retired,” who had returned to campus to help run all three DARPA challenges. Working with these and other experienced engineers are Whittaker’s students, ranging from freshmen to post-docs. Sixty have signed up for this semester’s robotics course to help design and build Red Rover and its lander.

On the business side, Whittaker got back in touch with David Gump, a space entrepreneur with whom he had worked in the 1990s on a commercial proposal, LunaCorp, to launch a rover to the Apollo 11 site. Within weeks of reviewing the Google prize requirements, he and Gump realized that making another try at the moon would require a new company, and capital. So Astrobotic was formed, with Gump as president.

For a team to claim the Google prize, its robot has to land on the lunar surface, travel at least 500 meters (about a third of a mile), and send high-definition images and data back to Earth within 24 hours. The first team to do so will win $20 million; bonus awards totaling $5 million are offered for extras such as photographing an artifact of previous lunar exploration, travelling more than 5,000 meters, and operating for a second (two-week) lunar day. To win the full award, the mission must be completed by the end of 2012, and 90 percent of the funding has to come from private sources. So far, 14 teams have announced their intention to compete for the prize.

Originally, Whittaker and crew targeted a landing at one of the moon’s poles; the reserves of water ice believed to exist there would be useful to future lunar explorers. But ultimately “cultural interest” drove the decision: Astrobotic now intends to touch down near the Apollo 11 landing site in the Sea of Tranquillity and head off on a “Tranquillity Trek”—visiting the site of the first moonwalks, an area about the size of a soccer field, and sending back photos and video in near-real time.

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