The Essential Interview: William ‘Red’ Whittaker, Field Robotics Pioneer and Entrepreneur

July 28, 2016

Joanne Pransky, associate editor of Industrial Robot, recently talked with William “Red” Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, president of Workhorse Technologies LLC, and CEO of Astrobotic Technology Inc. Whittaker is considered the “father of field robotics” and has developed autonomous vehicles as well as robots for space exploration, mining, and agriculture.

Whittaker has been dreaming of robots since childhood, and he obtained a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Princeton University, followed by a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from CMU. A true robotics innovator, Whittaker has developed more than 60 robots, including one to help clean up radioactive material from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.

He coined the term “field robotics” and has worked on locomotion technologies, navigation and route-planning systems, and advanced sensors for mobile robots on land, in the air and water, and in outer space. Whittaker’s autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs) have driven thousands of miles. He competed in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge since it began in 2004 and won DARPA’s $2 million Urban Challenge in 2007.

This interview is available free to Robotics Business Review readers until Sept. 30, 2016. Here’s a preview:

Pransky: Of all your robotic projects — what was your favorite one and why?

Whittaker: Robot racing because of the leap of technology. It transformed the world’s belief, seeded a huge new industry, and built a generation of great people. You have to honor absolutely every element of technology and enterprise that gets anything anywhere because the reality is that most of technology gets accomplished one slow step at a time, with every step comprising an important part of the whole.

I especially enjoy making original discoveries in a natural world and the grand leaps that really dent the world, such as what we did with the Dante program [for robotic locomotion and remote exploration].

Of course, robot racing is also great fun, although I haven’t done anything that I haven’t loved.

The 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge was the premiere autonomous vehicle competition — and there’s never a second chance to do it again the first time. We built...

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