Robots look to the moon

Carnegie Mellon faculty and students have been hard at work building a robot, called “Red Rover,” that they anticipate will land on the surface of the moon before 2012.

Carnegie Mellon has partnered with technology company Raytheon and the University of Arizona under Astrobotic Technology, Inc., a company formed by Carnegie Mellon professor William “Red” Whittaker. Under Whittaker’s leadership, the team seeks to win the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

Whittaker is the Fredkin Research Professor of Robotics at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and the founder of the Field Robotics Center and the Robotics Engineering Consortium, both at this university. He is also the Chairman and CEO of Astrobotic Technology, Inc. and oversees the project within and outside of Carnegie Mellon.

Most recently, he led the Tartan Racing team that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge’s $2 million prize with their car, Boss.

In an interview posted on the video-sharing website YouTube, Whittaker spoke of the philosophy behind what he deems a truly successful project.

“In any successful mission, if you haven’t done everything, you haven’t done anything,” he said.
Whittaker has now focused his attentions on the Google Lunar X PRIZE.

The Google Lunar X PRIZE is an international competition to land a robot on the moon, allow it to move 500 meters over the lunar surface, and transfer images and data back to the Earth.

Monetary prizes will be given to the winners — $20 million and $10 million respectively for the first and second to land on the moon, if accomplished by 2012. The prizes are only valid until 2014, at which point the prize amounts drop to $15 million and $5 million apiece.

The X PRIZE aims to promote commercial space exploration, funded projects into privately funding ventures.

As universities such as Carnegie Mellon are becoming more technologically advanced, the process of expanding these innovations to commercial enterprises beyond the university becomes increasingly complex, according to Michele Gittleman, a project manager in the Field Robotics Center.

“That’s why we have a tech transfer office — so that the big ideas can make it out of the university and into the world so the entrepreneurs can run with them,” Gittleman said.

Gittleman recognized the intensity it takes to build a robot to land on the moon.

“You have to really want it to win.... you have to have the passion to stick it out,” she said.
The X PRIZE has caused excitement and commotion not just in the world of robotics and technology, but also within the Carnegie Mellon community.

In addition to a group of faculty, the majority of the students working on the project are at the masters and Ph.D. level. However, a number of undergraduates are also involved in the project.

Astrobotic Technology’s new role as a spin-off of the university, rather than a separate company, allows for more student involvement on the project.

First-year mechanical engineering major Ray Barsa has already started contributing to the robotics project. He is one of the select group of undergraduates involved in the project, and as a first-year his position is especially rare.

Barsa is currently enrolled in the graduate level class Advanced Mobile Robot Development, which he decided to take after hearing about Carnegie Mellon’s X PRIZE team. His role covers working on mobility systems for “Red Rover.”

“Driving a robot on the moon is probably one of the biggest engineering challenges.... I’ve learned so much from the class .... [It] forces you to learn on your own, and there’s so many resources available,” Barsa said.

“I just feel really lucky to be part of the class .... I had hoped to work on projects like that one day, and it’s incredible to be working on them already [as a first-year],” he added.

John Thornton, a research engineer in the Field Robotics Center working on the project, echoed Barsa’s enthusiasm.

“It’s happening in our own backyard.... It’s incredible to be part of something bigger than all of us,” he said.

Thornton said Carnegie Mellon students already have the right combination of technical prowess, passion for excellence, and world-class research resources needed to get to the moon.

“Now we just throw all that in a pot, stir it up, and see what comes out,” he said. “A robot that wins the first prize of $20 million wouldn’t be so bad.”