The Tool Guy: Red Whittaker Responds

Robots Are Not Toys

Dr. William L. “Red” Whittaker is a principal scientist with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also director of the Field Robotics Center, which he founded in 1986. Projects under his direction include unmanned robots to explore planetary surfaces and volcano interiors, and autonomous land vehicle navigation. Some of this work is funded by NASA’s ASTEP (Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploration of Planets) and the Mars Technology Program.

William “Red” Whittaker.
Image Credit:
Robotics Institute, CMU

On April 16, Red Whittaker testified before the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond about the role robotics will play in the future of space exploration.

Questions from the Presidential Commission

Laurie Leshin: It seems one of the greatest challenges we face in making this vision successful is to train systems engineers better, and to overcome barriers between science and engineering. Can you talk about how students interact with you on these projects, and whether there are scientists involved in them at all? Is this a model program that we can use to help address some of these work force issues?

Whittaker: There is a vernacular in the trade that some of the space robot program is “The House That CMU Built.” I think that’s pretentious, but clearly students who engage in this matter have the experience of their lifetimes, and many of them may have (worked on) three, four or five (robots) before the age of 22. Our last initiative was exclusively students, in part because it disallowed contracts, and there were a core of 50 that grew to 250 strong. Besides the leap of technology, the relationships with companies and taking work to the world, one of the critical agendas is building these leaders. That is a very non-linear scale since the excellence and the vision and the capacity for implementation is great.

You take a student who comes off the pipeline, with robotics experience on both poles, three continents, and the Atacama desert by the time you get him, and you couldn’t buy it. It takes 10 years to build them and a second to lose them. One of the things that the space initiative better do is grab them, and grab them big. It’s like a pro-football draft, and the world is tearing their arms off with great opportunities. Many of them live the vision, and move from these kinds of training grounds directly into missions.

The ‘electronic brain’ Mariner IV. Sometimes it is recounted that the average digital wrist watch today has more computing power than the 1960’s manned lunar landers did. In 1964, while the Mariner IV spacecraft beamed back its first images of Mars, its data rate was 8 bits per second (50,000 times less than today), and took days to get a single picture home. The middle series of teletype numbers was processed for transmission by the spacecraft electronics (Mariner IV scanbus, lower) to yield the top approach picture to Mars. Mariner’s microwave signal transmitted with less power than a modern cellphone; its total spacecraft power could fire up two 100-watt light bulbs
Credit: NASA/ JPL Caltech

One of the things I’d suggest is that we give some of them those bold initiatives early – if all we’re doing is robots and we fly now – they could exhibit very quickly bolder capability if we let some of this great creativity and youth run with it.

Lester Lyles: I liked your analogy of Moore’s Law applied to robotics technology. I think it’s appropriate, but I have to tell you a was a little bit surprised last month by the DARPA initiative down in the desert, and the lack of success that the teams had that were involved in that. I was wondering, was there something unique about that particular challenge, or does it portend that perhaps there’s a lot of technology maturation and engineering that still needs to be done in robotics, that that particular scenario pointed out, that perhaps others have not?

Whittaker: Let’s think about that a little bit – it’s interesting you would label it a failure. A children’s crusade of seven months duration that averaged 24 kilometers per hour, and hit 54 kilometers per hour, and sustained that in circuitous mountain roads for 12 kilometers, and glitched on one hairpin. Now, consider that the oldest technologist in the batch was maybe 21, so consider that’s a completely pick-up outfit; it does not have the systemic maturity.

Just an aside, the same kids a few days later let things loose and traversed maybe 119 kilometers without the eyes of the world (on them). The same kids – in particular a teen that I led – patented last week seven claims, and you’ll see a broad literature out of it, and a new field probably in the arena of high-speed navigation of unrehearsed, irregular terrain.

It’s kind of an agency mindset that comes in hard with harpoons and arrows. My two cents is that the great accomplishments don’t come cheap. They don’t happen the first time around, in seven months they don’t come easy. The ones that are worth doing, are actually worth digging in to go get it again. It’s so interesting that if the kids ran the show, they wouldn’t have the same story that might be painted. By the way, it’s no secret that they shared a center of Scientific American with the Mars space venture, and held eminence, if you will, right with what we say is going on in space.

And by the way, in terms of inspiring a generation – don’t kid yourself. Hundreds of thousands of people enrolled, not a dollar of government money was spent, and people from high schools to pick-up shops to garages to universities that are burning strong right now, out there doing it.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: You reference Moore’s Law as something robotics beats in terms of its rate of achievements- what is the actual metric that’s being used to compare with Moore’s Law?

Whittaker: I call it Red’s Law. It’s a composite that I quantified. It has metrics in it like these combined speed and distance accomplishments that are normalized by computing that gets it done. Another part of it tracks the economic growth, which are the metrics on the robotics industry other than the fixed manufacture. A third is a composite of the technologies and components that go into it because robotics is a lot more than the computers. One of the stories that is going on is those enabling technologies, which are everything from actuation to sensing to pose estimation techniques and the like, are also in high growth, and that’s one of the reasons that it outpaces the computing.

Tyson: The reason I ask is, it just never occurred to me to think of the speed of a robot as an important measure of the value of the robot to exploration. When I think of this vision, I think of robots that might have to build a mini-factory that will manufacture rocket fuel, or extract water from the soils that an astronaut would later drink, or have a robot recreate itself in the famous test of whether robots can propagate through the solar system. Are any of these on your horizon as a robot pioneer?

Whittaker: Absolutely. I think it’s a magnificent topic that we engage in at this moment, which is to look at, like – what might those metrics be?

To be quite honest with you, what we show today is not at all my primary identity. I am really committed to robots at work, and my robots of record are tools, not toys. The early identity were the machines and operations to clean up Three Mile Island, and the commercial fortunes are things as pedestrian as rebuilding underground sewers, directing agricultural machines and mining operations. This is a major shift that has to occur in the thinking of space-faring enterprise. To go from machines that wander and see and infer and reason, into machines that work. The only metric of what those are is what they accomplish.

Maria Zuber: I would contend that if you wanted to send a robotic rover to the poles of the moon or Mars that you would need nuclear power. If you wanted to go to the poles of the moon and really do something there, you’ve got to go into the areas that are permanently shadowed, not the areas that are permanently light. So from a standpoint of scientific exploration, if you want to try to see if there’s hydrogen in the form of water ice on the moon, you want to go where it’s dark, not where it’s light. On Mars, once you get up to polar latitudes – I know we were planning to put a lander near the south pole several years ago, and it was terribly under-powered. You could either collect data or you could downlink data, but you couldn’t do both at the same time because there wasn’t enough battery power to do it with the solar cells. So am I correct about (the need for nuclear power), and how far are we from implementing that technology?

Mars pole
Clouds and frost cover on the north Martian pole from Mars Orbital Camera

Whittaker: Here’s a little of what goes on. A fact is that the magnificent treasure of the eternal cold traps are in many cases immediately adjacent to the regions of near-persistent sun. The way that works is if you get a cold trap – think of (it as) a cup that I’m holding – what you need is that it is shadowed. In order for that to occur, it has to be in the presence of grazing sun. So the sunlit regions come to near proximity or near directness to the deep cold traps.

The second part that’s of interest – I mentioned the idea of circumnavigating features. Some of the features of interest near the poles are things like knolls or mountain tops that are in fact in nearly persistent sun, and where circumnavigation of those, which would take speeds that are almost imperceptible, get these machines into line of sight with the cold traps. There are in fact scenarios from there of energetics that are beamed in, of kinetic devices that are projected in, and other means of exploration. So the short of it is you get to go right where you want to go, without going in, and that you get to see great options for lots of opportunities for that.

About some poles like Mars, there’s no question that I am an advocate of isotope power for those purposes, and what it is, is a great gift. The message that we have right here, is what you really get done is power, or energy, depending on how you look at it. And when the space community begins the transition from exploration to work, then of course work is the expenditure of power, and we’re into a whole new realm of how to get it done. I have simply pointed out a culmination of scenarios, and as you pointed out, power sources that can change everything.

Edward “Pete” Aldridge, Jr.: One of the tasks of this commission is to write a report to the President about how to implement the Moon, Mars and Beyond mission. If you had to write something in the report to tell the President to do something about the robotics area, what would you say?

Whittaker: The first bullet that caught my eye in looking at that policy were very near-term objectives for robots, like robots to the moon by 2008. As a practitioner of the trade, that’s very possible, but that is not implemented without getting right after it. With those ambitions, 2004 is the time for those mission studies, element designs – that’s the right leverage because that is the chief investment. So immediately cast that vision by locking in those studies.

The next is to embrace this sense of robotic ambition and boldness. These machines are capable, competent, these technologies will rise to these scenarios.

The third is to leverage extensively on the tremendous power that the private sector brings to bear, particularly when it’s time to get after this.

It’s kind of a Grant’s Tomb question, because on any of the bullets which have to do with an exploration to, or a robot on the surface of, that’s what it means. And there’s nothing to the doing but the doing of it, so get right after it.

Related Web Pages

Follow the Sun
Nomad: Extreme Explorers Hall of Fame
Roadtest for Robots
William “Red” Whittaker, Robotics Institute
Moore’s Law
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) race
Darpa Grand Challenge Race
Presidential Commission, Moon to Mars and Beyond
Antarctic Search for Antarctic Meteorites Program (ANSMET)
Big Signal Project
Atacama Desert Expedition
Patriot Hills Expedition
Nomad Engineering