Astrobotic Technology Inc., a spin-out from the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) by robot pioneer William “Red” Whittaker, aims for the moon, literally. The company plans to leverage the branding and experience resulting from winning Google’s Lunar X Prize competition to create a profitable, sustainable business.
Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is one of approximately 20 firms chasing Google’s Lunar X Prize, an international competition requiring that a robot land safely on the surface of the moon, travel a distance of at least 500 meters, and transmit video, images, and data back to Earth. X Prize rules require that competing teams be 90 percent privately funded and registered as competitors by December 31, 2010. Google will award $20 million to the first team that accomplishes the task; the full first prize will be awarded until December 31, 2012. After that date, the award for first place drops to $15 million. An award of $5 million will go to the second team to reach the goal, and $5 million will be awarded in bonus prizes. The deadline for winning the prize is December 31, 2014.
While Astrobotic’s business model is not completely dependent on an X Prize win, a victory would be hugely beneficial. The company’s website lists a half-dozen ways Astrobotic intends to generate revenue. For example, on March 14, the company announced that it was making 240 lbs. (109 kg) of payload available for travel to the moon as part of its maiden expedition in 2012. The company will charge $700,000 per pound, plus a $250,000 fee per payload to cover the engineering costs of integrating the freight into its Artemis lander or Red Rover solar-powered ground system. Astrobotic also intends to sell lunar data, carry additional payloads to the moon (with partner Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and its Falcon 9 rocket), and perform contract lunar work for other companies.
Astrobotic has made it clear that promotional opportunities on its systems are available, and that the company “will sign category-exclusive marketing arrangements with the world’s most forward-thinking corporations.” It is possible that the company’s five-foot-tall robot will be plastered with more ads than a NASCAR racer. Naming rights for Astrobotic’s Red Rover robot also remain available. Red Rover has become a star of sorts, with a poster available from the Astrobotic website for $10 plus shipping and handling.
Even if Astrobotic does not claim any of the $30 million in Lunar X Prize winnings, the business model is still viable. As one of 20 competitors, the odds are against it. However, the reputation of Astrobotic founder Whittaker will provide them with an added boost. Through Whittaker, Astrobotic can claim a long history of success in the field of robotics (Whittaker was the developer of a robot that inspected and repaired damages in Long Island’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant), as well as strong business relationships (more than 80 NASA, Energy Department, and Defense contracts over the years).
A Win-Win Position
Astrobotic is not the only beneficiary of its Google Lunar X Prize ambitions and Whittaker’s reputation. CMU also benefits from Astrobotic’s entry in the contest. Each news article about Astrobotic reflects well on Carnegie Mellon University and the Field Robotics Center, which contributes to additional research grants and attracts the best students interested in the field to the university.
Win or lose, Astrobotic investors will either recoup their investment directly from the prize winnings or indirectly through their relationship with Astrobotic and Whittaker. RedZone Robotics, which makes sewer pipe inspection robots and was co-founded by Whittaker in 1987, could benefit as well. While sewers can be fairly harsh environments, they pale in comparison to the moon. Temperature extremes from 120° C during the day down to -185° C at night have forced Astrobotic to drive innovation for many classes of technology. The resulting highly robust technology can be used by both Astrobotic and RedZone and parleyed into additional contracts.
No private company has attempted a moon landing as of yet, but given Astrobotic’s funding level and leadership, it has a good chance of becoming the first. With NASA foregoing manned space flights for the next few years while it awaits a shuttle replacement, robots are the only option for lunar exploration. Astrobotic, in the person of Whittaker, has already received a large number of NASA contracts and will almost certainly continue building on that relationship. It also appears that Astrobotic will be able to count on multiple revenue streams for services whether it is a Google Lunar X Prize winner or not. Closer to home, municipalities may prefer that their sewer pipe inspection robots have incorporated “proven on the moon” technology, increasing the revenue for RedZone Robotics, Whittaker, and also Astrobotic.Read More