"Red" Whittaker: A Man And His Robots

He created the technology to let robots work far from the assembly line

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William "Red" Whittaker doesn't slip unnoticed into a room. An imposing 6 feet 2, he has the swagger of a guy who boxed his way through a tour in the marines and once wrestled a muzzled chimpanzee on a wager for beer money. Ambling into the machine shop of Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center, which he founded in 1986 and still directs, he's always the center of attention.

Whittaker, 57, is a big man in another way: He is widely credited with liberating robots from repetitive assembly-line work and setting them loose in the field. His early inventions, such as the Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle that relayed images from inside the contaminated nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in 1984, were tethered by command wires. Now, they are truly on their own. His "Red Team" of two driverless vehicles completed a 132-mile course through Nevada's Mojave Desert in a government-sponsored race last fall. They navigated solely with GPS coordinates, downloaded photographs, and onboard laser sensors.

Whittaker is not a theoretical scientist. He insists that all his robots have practical applications. He invented robotic technology, for instance, that enables a tractor to work a field essentially on autopilot, based on GPS signals and laser scanners that tell the machine where it is. Deere (DE ) now uses the technology in its high-end farm equipment. He also has his own company, RedZone Robotics in Homestead, Pa., which is testing robots to inspect and repair sewers and water mains. "A vision without implementation is irresponsible," he says.

The creations on display at the Field Robotics Center's two-story shop on CMU's Pittsburgh campus reflect this stance. One is a rubber-tracked rover about the size of a desktop that Whittaker and his graduate students just built to explore lunar craters. Another is a laser-guided explorer, a low-slung rectangle assembled from the steering axles of two ATVs and a welded steel frame, that can maneuver through mines and other subterranean crannies.

Whittaker grew up in Hollidaysburg, Pa., in the Allegheny Mountains east of Pittsburgh. As a boy, he picked up science from his chemist mother and his father, an explosives salesman. He attended Princeton University as an undergraduate, dropped out to join the Marines, then returned to complete his bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1973. He went on to get a master's degree and a PhD in the same field at CMU.

Feeling unfulfilled, Whittaker sought a new challenge, "something that would change the world, something that would be fulfilled in my time, that my own work, would be a big part of." He considered computer science, then chose robotics because it was "in the realm of science fiction," he explains. "There was no sense of what to do or how to do it. It was not so different from where cars and airplanes were a century ago."

Whittaker sometimes shows a warped sense of humor. Until this spring he raised cattle on the 1,000-acre farm he runs with his wife, Kathy. He named the animals after his graduate students, and took perverse pleasure in telling the class which one was next up for slaughter. But the students sometimes get the last laugh. In the recent Grand Challenge race in the Mojave, the $2 million prize went to a Stanford University team led by Whittaker's onetime protégé at CMU, Sebastian Thrun. Was the teacher disappointed? "The 'D' word isn't much in my lexicon," he says. Next year, the robo-race moves to an urban course, and Whittaker may sign up. "The only way you can lose is to not play," he says.

By Michael Arndt

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