March 2, 1998
SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, RED WHITTAKER
Red's rovers take the field
A crusader in sometimes hostile
territory, Red Whittaker drives his robots to new lands
and wins Design News' Special Achievement Award
Michael Puttré, Associate Editor
Last summer, the world watched little Sojourner nosing
up to rocks on Mars with names like "Yogi"
and "Barnacle Bill." But out in the high,
cold wastes of Chile's Atacama Desert, William Whittaker,
universally known as "Red," was watching another
robot named "Nomad" on the move.
Nomad's goal was to operate autonomously for long periods,
navigate through unfamiliar territory, and identify
specific types of rocks. Weighing 1,600 lb and resembling
a radio-controlled dune buggy, the rover accomplished
the longest trek ever for a teleoperated vehicle through
rough terrain. During the month-and-a-half-long experiment,
operators at the Field Robotics Center (FRC) at Carnegie
Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, and NASA's Ames Research
Center, Moffett Field, CA, alternately guided Nomad
across a 120-mile course, occasionally letting the robot
The rover features four-wheel drive/four-wheel steering
with a chassis that expands to improve stability according
to terrain conditions. Four aluminum wheels with cleats
provide traction in soft sand. A gasoline generator
powers the robot's systems and enables a top speed of
20 inches per second, making it a Maserati among robots.
Nomad possesses on-board navigation sensors, including
true-color stereo optics, enabling it to avoid obstacles
and locate objects of interest without relying on a
human operator. The true color vision system also enabled
Nomad to locate a number of pre-positioned meteorites
among the terrestrial rocks.
Locating meteorites in inhospitable places has achieved
new importance since scientists raised the possibility
they may contain evidence of extra-terrestrial life.
"There's more of Mars on the Earth right now than
you'll ever get with a sample return mission,"
Whittaker points out. He would like to send robots out
to start gathering them up.
To this end, Carnegie Mellon robotics researchers joined
other scientists from the University of Pittsburgh,
NASA's Ames Research Center, and the Antarctic Chilean
Institute on an expedition to Antarctica last December
to test component technologies that will enable robots
to search for meteorites there. The venture is the first
of three planned Antarctic expeditions scheduled to
take place through the year 2000.
In the latest expedition, researchers will validate
robotic component and meteorite classification instruments.
By 1999, a winterized Nomad rover is expected to explore
Antarctic ice fields, searching for meteorites under
human supervision. In 2000, plans call for Nomad and
a solar-powered robot to perform collaborative, autonomous
searches for meteorites and demonstrate how scientists
can control them remotely.
Whittaker, founder and director of the FRC, was father
to Nomad and dozens of other robots over the past decade.
In fact, he practically invented field robotics. He
coined the term. Although he graduated from Princeton
University with a civil engineering degree in 1973,
subsequently receiving his master's and doctorate degrees
from Carnegie Mellon, robots were always on his mind.
No structured program in robotics existed, so he developed
one himself. There was a time when he was the only chaired
professor of robotics anywhere in the world. Carnegie
Mellon is still the only institution that offers a doctorate
program in robotics, although this is changing.
Whittaker is adamant about the need for Nomad and the
choice of proving grounds. One is compelled to ask:
Why Chile? The United States has perfectly serviceable
deserts of its own. Deserts that have cell phone coverage.
Deserts that offer fast foods. Chile is far from Pittsburgh
and offers few support services. "Rather like the
Moon," Whittaker replies with a wry smile.
What distinguishes the director of the FRC from others
who design and build robots is that Whittaker has an
agenda: He wants to create robots that are agents of
mankind to represent civilization in the most hostile
places. In pursuit of this agenda, he travels to the
far corners of the Earth to field-test his designs.
He is prepared to go much farther, or at least send
an automated ambassador.
The "field" is the operative word in FRC.
"I don't do paint jobs," Whittaker says, referring
to numerically controlled machines that have proliferated
throughout the world's manufacturing plants. Then he
is careful to retract any aspersions cast at makers
of industrial robots. "It's just that at the FRC,
we are creating a whole new category of machines,"
he says. "Machines that go places. That move. That
think. That decide. That explore. All on their own."
The previous description might be autobiographical.
Whittaker is never content unless he is going places,
moving, thinking, making decisions, exploring. The one
thing he can't do is do it by himself. He relishes his
role as a pioneer but fully acknowledges the support
he has received from Carnegie Mellon and has nothing
but accolades for the researchers and graduate students
on his team.
"I have the tremendous advantage of being ensconced
in a first-rate research institution," Whittaker
says. "This provides the perfect environment in
terms of facilities and people, both professors and
Although getting hold of the right people lately is
assuming some of the characteristics of a pro-football
draft. There was a time when if a student wanted to
pursue robotics, he or she came to Carnegie Mellon,
and to Red Whittaker. Now the success of the FRC has
spawned other robotics institutions around the world.
He now competes in a field he pioneered. Whittaker often
goes as far afield to find new talent as he does to
The phone rings. It's Red's man in Australia, reporting
that a young talent he had been sent to recruit is being
courted by a rival organization. Whittaker listens for
long minutes, evaluating the information which elicits
only the occasional (and uncharacteristic) monosyllabic
response. Finally, he tells his agent he needs the young
man in question. "Get him on board as a post-doc,"
Whittaker commands. "He's a visionary, he's got
the stuff. He's our means to the Moon."
Steps and leaps. Rewind to 1992, and
another moment of crisis. A single misstep and stress
fractures propagate through the eight-legged walker.
Although it looks like nothing so much as an outsized
tarantula, the robot lacks a spider's dexterity or flexibility.
Horrified, its creator is powerless as one leg after
another bends and breaks. The robot stumbles and falls,
paralyzed on a rocky slope. The creator retreats to
a lonely corner of his lab and weeps bitterly.
The sting passes quickly for the former boxer, a veteran
at getting off the ropes. There is work to be done.
Red Whittaker comes out of his corner and sees to the
recovery of the robot walker, Dante. Fortunately, it
is easily accessible in a back lot on the Carnegie Mellon
University campus. In a few weeks time, Dante is scheduled
to walk the permafrost of Antarctica, to descend into
the smoking crater of Mt. Erebus, an active volcano.
Failure is the fire that tempers an engineer's mettle.
Whittaker has a mission and a timetable. And space booked
aboard a C-130 Hercules transport plane. It is not easy
to get to Antarctica, much less with a 1,600-lb robot
and its attending support team and equipment. The Hercules
represents a window of opportunity that may not reopen
anytime soon. Whittaker and his team spend nights on
the floor of the Field Robotics Center getting Dante
back on its feet.
As a result, Dante had its day on the volcano at the
bottom of the world. Unfortunately, the day was cut
short when a kink in the command tether--irreparable
in the field--cut communications and Dante had to be
unceremoniously hauled up. A year and a half later,
an improved Dante II successfully descended into another
volcano, Alaska's Mt. Spurr. The mission was heroic.
However, another stumble toppled the walker, this time
at the bottom of the crater amid sulfurous vents and
rocks spewing like popcorn, where no human hands could
set the robot right. The team was able to recover the
heavily-damaged robot by helicopter, and it now serves
as a popular exhibit, traveling to schools around the
The scientific results of the Dante expeditions were
modest, but their contributions to robotics were invaluable,
particularly in the areas of step calculation and machine
vision integration. Neil Armstrong's legendary quote
concerning small steps and giant leaps comes to mind,
but Whittaker might scowl at the usage. The manned space
program hasn't done field robotics very many favors.
And Whittaker's feet are firmly planted on the robots'
side. "Viking used to be called a spacecraft because
the manned space program felt threatened by robots,"
he says. "Now it's a robot. Titanic, Mars, tubeworms
in vents at the bottom of the sea. All brought to you
by robots. I have a robo-centric view of the world.
People would say I'm obsessed by it."
Rosie, built by Red Zone Robotics, a company
started by Red and partners to manufacture
and market robots, is a direct descendent
of the robots developed to help with the accident
at Three Mile Island. It is a large and robustsystem,
featuring independent wheel drive and steering,
a multi-function robotic arm, and on-board
intelligence and sensors.