July 28, 2016      

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently talked with William “Red” Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, president of Workhorse Technologies LLC, and CEO of Astrobotic Technology Inc. Whittaker is considered the “father of field robotics” and has developed autonomous vehicles as well as robots for space exploration, mining, and agriculture.

Whittaker has been dreaming of robots since childhood, and he obtained a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Princeton University, followed by a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from CMU. A true robotics innovator, Whittaker has developed more than 60 robots, including one to help clean up radioactive material from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

He coined the term “field robotics” and has worked on locomotion technologies, navigation and route-planning systems, and advanced sensors for mobile robots on land, in the air and water, and in outer space. Whittaker’s autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs) have driven thousands of miles. He competed in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge since it began in 2004 and won DARPA’s $2 million Urban Challenge in 2007.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Sept. 30, 2016. Here’s a preview:

Pransky: Of all your robotic projects — what was your favorite one and why?

Whittaker: Robot racing because of the leap of technology. It transformed the world’s belief, seeded a huge new industry, and built a generation of great people. You have to honor absolutely every element of technology and enterprise that gets anything anywhere because the reality is that most of technology gets accomplished one slow step at a time, with every step comprising an important part of the whole.

I especially enjoy making original discoveries in a natural world and the grand leaps that really dent the world, such as what we did with the Dante program [for robotic locomotion and remote exploration].

William Whittaker worked on the DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicles.

Sandstorm secured the first position in the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge.

Of course, robot racing is also great fun, although I haven’t done anything that I haven’t loved.

The 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge was the premiere autonomous vehicle competition — and there’s never a second chance to do it again the first time. We built something from scratch, something that most of the world thought would never work in our time. The technology from that historic event spawned a billion-dollar industry that has just begun.

Pransky: What has been the most surprising variation between what you expected from a robot’s performance in a structured environment to what you experienced when it was deployed in the real world?

The Terregator needed some help with its field robotics guidance systems.

Terregator mobile robot with camera and wireless telemetry navigating on CMU sidewalks in 1983.

Whittaker: The first of our outdoor autonomous machines, Terregator — terrestrial navigator — was the most surprising in terms of expectations, although it’s hard to recall one of my robots that didn’t surprise me during its development.

Terregator was in 1983, the primeval days of developing outdoor driving. We were training it to drive on a winding trail that was paved with black asphalt and surrounded by green grass from the adjacent parks.

In order to get the robot to follow the blacktop and stay off of the grass, it first had to do the color segmentation. Then, it looked for features that were long and dark and incorporated the plans and controls to drive on the straight, long-dark features. We were actually succeeding driving on segments of this path.

The great surprise occurred when it departed just a touch from the path and started to drive its way up a giant oak tree. It actually drove the front end of the vehicle up to a very steep angle and was scratching away at this tree.

When we back-solved it, we saw that it was in fact driving on a straight, long dark feature — an oak tree — that was in its scene and was even better than the path. The robot did exactly what we were developing it to do. We just didn’t guess that it would be climbing a tree like that.

Pransky: Of your phenomenal career, what is your single, proudest moment?

Red Whittaker helped remediate the radioactive contamination at Three Mile Island.

The Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle was the first vehicle to enter the basement of Three Mile Island after the meltdown in March 1979.

Whittaker: While I don’t focus on personal pride, I would say the day that we closed the doors on Three Mile Island with the cleanup completed was my proudest moment.

Everything that occurred over those many years was done by robots in the basement of Three Mile Island. To this day, there’s never been a human in the basement.

Pransky: How did you initially get involved with the Three Mile Island accident, and how long did it take for the first robot to go in?

Whittaker: The accident itself occurred in 1979. During the next five years, not much was being done at the site.

Here, in the USA, nuclear reactors are contained by very heavily reinforced concrete walls about 5- or 6-feet thick. If there is an explosion, the containment building prevents the gases, fluids and materials from going everywhere.

The good news is that contamination doesn’t get out. The bad news is because it’s contained, it took them all those years to address the cleanup.

There were hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated water flooding the basement. A lot of debris including a tremendous amount of dissolved radionuclides such as cesium, strontium and uranium fuel pellets had washed out of the reactor and made it into the basement.

Pransky: What do you think is the single most important thing we can be doing for our Ph.D.s to prepare them for the commercial world?

Whittaker: Our Ph.D.s are incredibly advantaged in their technical, intellectual and academic development and that’s a high bar.

In these times, the most valuable thing in my view is to teach them to “hunt, kill, and eat.” That’s a phrase I use a lot.

But whether they go into business, into a career of development or academia, each of them operates an enterprise in its own right. Much of their success depends on that capacity to “hunt, kill, and eat” as much as their technical and intellectual virtuosity.

Pransky: If you had to choose between sending 10 robots to Mars or nine robots and one person, which would you go for and why?

Whittaker: I’d go for the nine robots and a person. One of the great ambitions that resonate with people is space tourism.

It has those basic elements I spoke about previously that lead to technology, transforming the world’s belief, seeding big new industry and engaging the world. We’re going to see that break this year in a big way, with the right kind of technical business and competitive start.

More on Mobile and Field Robotics:

Astrobotic's Griffin lunar lander and CMU's Andy rover

Astrobotic’s Griffin lander and CMU’s Andy rover will deliver payloads to the Moon.

Note: The Google Lunar XPrize is a $30 million space competition organized by the XPrize Foundation and sponsored by Google Inc. in which a privately funded spaceflight team will be awarded for being the first to land a robotic rover on the Moon, travel 500 m and transmit back high-definition video and images. The competition deadline is December 2017.

Astrobotic is a privately held lunar logistics company co-founded by Whittaker in 2007. Its mission is to deliver payloads to the Moon for companies, governments, universities, non-profits, and individuals. The Pittsburgh-based field robotics company has won the Lunar XPrize three Milestone Prizes for a total of $1.75 million so far. Astrobotic is one of 16 qualifying teams vying for the grand prize.

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