William 'Red' Whittaker: A Man and His Machines

William 'Red' Whittaker: A Man and His Machines
William 'Red' Whittaker sitting on the hood of Sandstorm.

When William "Red" Whittaker, now the FredkinProfessor of Robotics at The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, wasentering college and looking for something to specialize in, he considered anumber of fields for post-graduate work.

Ideally, he wanted to enter a field where the work had notreached an endpoint so that he could still make a significant contribution, yethe also wanted to work with his hands. Robotics fit both of those needs perfectly -- "It's what I was bornfor," he reflected in a recent interview with SPACE.com.

Indeed he was. A selfdescribed "old man of the trade", Whittaker is celebrity in the rarified worldof robotics, having won many awards for his innovative designs which haveapplications on Earth and in Space.

Not too long ago, robots were able to navigate from point"A" to point "B", but were unable to make decisions along the way. Now, thanksin part to Whittaker's innovations, they can perform multiple tasks withease.

Whittaker has helped develop robots that can plan basic activitieswithout the aid of humans. One is a sun-cognizantsolar powered explorer that plans its day so it is exposed to maximum sunlight. Another rover makes use of stabilizingperception sensors to mimic human vision on bumpy terrain.

One robot that Whittaker designed is an Antarctic meteorhunter named Nomad. Nomad is capable ofroaming the terrain and picking out meteors from regular rocks without the aidof human control. Not only does Nomadperform this task on its own, but it does so more accurately and quicker thanhumans.

With the application of robotics increasing in Space, aswell as the agriculture and automotive industries, Whittaker says the world is"very quickly becoming a realm of machines, not people."

Where the ideas comefrom

Ideas for robotic creations come to Whittaker from varioussources. The motivation for Groundhog, arobot that maps abandoned mines, came after the 2002 Pennsylvania coal mining accident thattrapped nine workers underground for 77 hours. Whittaker wanted to develop a tool that would help remove human riskfrom the industry. In another effort toremove humans from risk, he has worked on developing robots that can explorethe radioactive remains of nuclear power plants.

Other ideas come from observing animals in nature, as can beseen in his rugged terrain exploring creation, Ambler. Ambler's eight-legged design was born fromthe animal world, but has been modified to use an energy-efficient overlapping gaitthat is more efficient than anything in the animal world.

"Motivations are in the events of our time - a Chernobyl or a mineentrapment. You can almost read thedaily headlines and see the motivations," said Whittaker of the sources for hisideas. "Another great one isexploration, and the idea that there is still so much to be discovered in thisworld and worlds beyond."

The Grand Challenge

This October, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,the central research and development organization for the United StatesDepartment of Defense, will sponsor its second annual Grand Challenge. The Grand Challenge pits robotically operatedvehicles against each other in a 175 mile race across the Mojave Desert. The winner of therace, which must be completed in 10 hours, will win a $2 million prize.

Last year, Whittaker's entry, Sandstorm, burst off thestarting line before getting stuck on an obstacle 7.4 miles from the start -the furthest any of the vehicles in the race made it.

Whittaker finds the concept behind the race captivatingbecause it has the tremendous capacity to take robotics from the lab to thereal world.

"[It is] more than just another competition - like the [Ansari] X-Prize, or Lindbergh [flying over the Atlantic Ocean], or computer beating a human at chess -it grabs your attention," adding that, "It's a hard hitting competition so theworld brings its best. A lightning rodfor the technology, and I'd say the tech is doubling at least once a year,"referring to improvements in robotic driving skills, duration, and the abilityto deal with contingencies.

Whittaker's design team, Red Team Racing, has entered tworobotic vehicles for the 2005 Grand Challenge. One entry is a vastly improved Sandstorm and the other is a brand newcreation named H1ghlander. H1ghlander,with its 'hot new innovations', will have a technical edge over Sandstorm, butby race day, Sandstorm will have logged over 5000 miles of testing compared toH1ghlander's 500.

"There is a lot to say for the reliability and solidperformance that comes from a veteran over the unproven, untested competence ofa rookie," said Whittaker.

With well over 100 entries vying for a position in the 20robot race and expectations of stiff competition, Whittaker refused tospeculate on how his entries will fare.

"The game turns real when your hat is in the ring," he said,adding "something that's wonderful about these challenges is the technologydoes the talking and people have nothing to do with it. On race day, or the moment of truth, it'sabout action, not talking. It's a jazzfor everybody and everyone that is running this thing. I never pick favorite robots, favoritepeople, or favorite days, but this one gets me going"

Looking ahead

There is currently a robotic revolution taking place in manymarkets and arenas. Whittaker says wehave gotten past the 'no robots allowed' stigma that hurt the early days ofrobotics, and now the technology is being embraced in agricultural andautomotive industries, as well as in Space. Three years ago, Whittaker wouldn't have dreamed of robots mappingabandoned mines or robotic steering finding its way into the automotiveindustry.

"It's no longer a question of could there be robots, couldthey move around, could they gatherdata, could they survive," saysWhittaker. "In many ways they are theagents of choice to the universe. Thatbusiness of reaching into everyday life, well, these capabilities are enchanting. Automated guidance from the Grand Challengewill make it to the automotive industry. For example, from this new tech there is tremendous new ways to augmentsteering and maneuvering that are at the edge of human control. You don't need to read a crystal ball or be awizard to see the potential."

The biggest shortfall, in Whittaker's opinion, is that rightnow robotics is a well kept secret and not in mainstream conversationsenough. Robotics, as a field, has alsosuffered somewhat for the failure to meet the lofty and imaginative heightsthat science fiction fans dream about, but Whittaker sees a change coming.

"It isn't big dreaming anymore," he said. "The thing to impress is that in many waysthe future is now, and that wouldn't be so if we were talking 10, 15 yearsago. The best is yet to come."

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Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, Space.com and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.