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The Pransky interview: Dr William “Red” Whittaker, Robotics Pioneer, Professor, Entrepreneur

Joanne Pransky (Emerald, Kenwood, California, USA)

Industrial Robot

ISSN: 0143-991x

Article publication date: 20 June 2016

Abstract

Purpose

The following paper details a “Q&A interview” conducted by Joanne Pransky, Associate Editor of Industrial Robot Journal, to impart the combined technological, business and personal experience of a prominent, robotic industry engineer-turned successful business leader, regarding the commercialization and challenges of bringing technological inventions to the market while overseeing a company. The paper aims to discuss these issues.

Design/methodology/approach

The interviewee is Dr William “Red” Whittaker, Fredkin Research Professor of Robotics, Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU); CEO of Astrobotic Technology; and President of Workhorse Technologies. Dr Whittaker provides answers to questions regarding the pioneering experiences of some of his technological wonders in land, sea, air, underwater, underground and space.

Findings

As a child, Dr Whittaker built things and made them work and dreamed about space and robots. He has since then turned his dreams, and those of the world, into realities. Dr Whittaker’s formal education includes a BS degree in civil engineering from Princeton and MS and PhD degrees in civil engineering from CMU. In response to designing a robot to cleanup radioactive material at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, Dr Whittaker established the Field Robotics Center (FRC) in 1983. He is also the founder of the National Robotics Engineering Center, an operating unit within CMU’s Robotics Institute (RI), the world’s largest robotics research and development organization. Dr Whittaker has developed more than 60 robots, breaking new ground in autonomous vehicles, field robotics, space exploration, mining and agriculture. Dr Whittaker’s research addresses computer architectures for robots, modeling and planning for non-repetitive tasks, complex problems of objective sensing in random and dynamic environments and integration of complete robot systems. His current focus is Astrobotic Technology, a CMU spin-off firm that is developing space robotics technology to support planetary missions. Dr Whittaker is competing for the US$20m Google Lunar XPRIZE for privately landing a robot on the Moon.

Originality/value

Dr Whittaker coined the term “field robotics” to describe his research that centers on robots in unconstrained, uncontrived settings, typically outdoors and in the full range of operational and environmental conditions: robotics in the “natural” world. The Field Robotics Center has been one of the most successful initiatives within the entire robotics industry. As the Father of Field Robotics, Dr Whittaker has pioneered locomotion technologies, navigation and route-planning methods and advanced sensing systems. He has directed over US$100m worth of research programs and spearheaded several world-class robotic explorations and operations with significant outreach, education and technology commercializations. His ground vehicles have driven thousands of autonomous miles. Dr Whittaker won DARPA’s US$2m Urban Challenge. His Humvees finished second and third in the 2005 DARPA’s Grand race Challenge desert race. Other robot projects have included: Dante II, a walking robot that explored an active volcano; Nomad, which searched for meteorites in Antarctica; and Tugbot, which surveyed a 1,800-acre area of Nevada for buried hazards. Dr Whittaker is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is a fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and served on the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board. Dr Whittaker received the Alan Newell Medal for Research Excellence. He received Carnegie Mellon’s Teare Award for Teaching Excellence. He received the Joseph Engelberger Award for Outstanding Achievement in Robotics, the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence’s inaugural Feigenbaum Prize for his contributions to machine intelligence, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Simon Ramo Medal, the American Society of Civil Engineers Columbia Medal, the Antarctic Service Medal and the American Spirit Honor Medal. Science Digest named Dr Whittaker one of the top 100 US innovators for his work in robotics. He has been recognized by Aviation Week & Space Technology and Design News magazines for outstanding achievement. Fortune named him a “Hero of US Manufacturing”. Dr Whittaker has advised 26 PhD students, has 16 patents and has authored over 200 publications. Dr Whittaker’s vision is to drive nanobiologics technology to fulfillment and create nanorobotic agents for enterprise on Earth and beyond (Figure 1).

Keywords

Citation

Pransky, J. (2016), "The Pransky interview: Dr William “Red” Whittaker, Robotics Pioneer, Professor, Entrepreneur", Industrial Robot, Vol. 43 No. 4, pp. 349-353. https://doi.org/10.1108/IR-04-2016-0124

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2016, Emerald Group Publishing Limited