That combination of genial self-assurance and lofty goals is Whittaker’s signature. As founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center, his insistence on framing technology problems in do-or-die terms underlies more than his high-tech reputation or his ability to spin off dozens of local firms. It has arguably fixed CMU’s place in the robotics firmament, at the intersection of research and big-money commercial enterprises. It has also vaulted Pittsburgh into the actual firmament: CMU has designed prototypes to explore Mars and the moon. Now Astrobotic, another Whittaker-led start-up, is preparing to deploy a commercial rover on the lunar surface.
“He’s always interested in robots that will do real things, solve real problems,” says John Thornton, the CEO of Astrobotic and Whittaker’s former grad student. “It’s all about applications. A lot of that comes from his farming background, understanding that there’s tools needed to do the job. And he’s fantastic at generating new ideas.”
Ford’s February announcement that it will invest $1 billion over the next five years in Pittsburgh-based Argo AI to develop autonomous vehicle technology underscored the rise of a new 21st century industry. “Engineering existed for millennia. The humanities too,” Whittaker says. “This robotics is the new kid on block. It’s on fire right now.”
In 2008, as then-city councilman Bill Peduto proclaimed the first Field Robotics Day in Pittsburgh, Whittaker told an audience, “Every robot has an element of its creator.” Whittaker’s robots take on the world. “There’s no part of human pursuit or technical pursuit I don’t honor. It’s all valued,” Whittaker says. “But [given] the choice between incremental, inch-at-a-time improvement or big leap, I swing for the big leap.”
Thirty years ago, robotics was largely viewed as a means of mechanizing assembly-line production — “bolted to the factory floor,” Whittaker recalls. By contrast, he envisioned robots that moved through the chaos of the open world, perceiving and solving continuous challenges. For Whittaker, the upcoming Astrobotic moon mission is literally a moonshot: a one-shot chance to make the previously impossible real. It’s the kind of dare he can’t resist.
The joy of competition
Since earning his Ph. D. at CMU in 1979, Whittaker has accepted more than a few dares, and made good on most of them. “He definitely likes to win, to execute at a high level,” Thornton says. “He doesn’t accept anything but the best. And people at CMU are looking for that opportunity.”
Whittaker insists that his teams aren’t “prize junkies.” Throughout his career, his motivation has been more stratospheric: to “secure and feed this world and explore worlds beyond. I haven’t changed a word of that in all these decades,” he says. “I have a very strong sense that there’s a generation that needs those [technologies] that could use support from pioneers.”
William Lawrence Whittaker — “Red” for hair that has since turned white to match his beard — was a born tinkerer.
“At age 8 or 9, I was an adventurer. I had a junkyard at our house— 6500 Virginia Avenue in Avalon. Let me do something I’ve never done. I’ll take me back,” he says, quickly calling up the house’s satellite image on his phone. “The junkyard is now wooded over. Around here was my first treehouse, the first time I knocked myself out.” The family moved east to Hollidaysburg a few years later.
Enrolling at Princeton in 1966, Whittaker expected to major in physics. But when his father lost a job, college costs proved too much to handle. Withdrawing from school and enlisting in the Marines provided the needed cash. The hitch gave Whittaker a new focus for his ambitions.
“That was the advent of mainframe computers. There was one gifted to a little state institution, Lock Haven University, on the Susquehanna River,” where the Marine Corps had assigned Whittaker. “Learning about it fired me up. I became a programmer’s programmer. I was lining up what would I be about.”
Returning to Princeton, he completed a degree in civil engineering. “After two years, I come back, driving a Jaguar, pocket full of money,” he recalls fondly. He moved on to Carnegie Mellon and stayed, joining its faculty as the Robotics Institute was created. Over the next two decades, the university’s research budget would explode, from $12 million to roughly $110 million.
“I’d developed myself as an engineer and computer guy, a crafter. I know how things work, I’m a researcher and a teacher and I’m pretty good at the game,” he recalls. “Computing is really hot. It’s emerging, I’m that close to being a computer guy.” He concluded that his contribution lay elsewhere. “I’d done other things — I’d swung a hammer, built rail track, laid pipe. I had this vision of robots at work.”
To Whittaker, Pittsburgh was the perfect professional base.
“Pittsburgh is a hell of an engineering town. I was looking for a place that had a great research institution, and, more broadly, a town with a technical base, with traditional industry in a bit of decline, a melting pot kind of place,” he says. Decline, for Whittaker, provided elbow room to build and test vehicles. “A circuit board you can make in a room. You can write papers in an office. But tractors, trucks, cars that drive, spaceships, underwater vehicles — in this business, you’re in the real estate business.” Hazelwood’s sprawling Hazelwood Green site, now home of an Uber test track, proves his point.
Robotics’ first steps
John Bares, now test operations lead at Uber Technologies’ research center in Pittsburgh, was a nervous CMU sophomore when he first encountered Whittaker. “I had a technical writing class and needed someone to interview. I’d heard he was doing cool things related to robots,” he recalls. “I went and knocked on his office door. This mountain of a man gets up from behind the desk. He told me, ‘I start at 4 a.m. Get here then and we’ll talk.’ With Red, there’s always some drama and hyperbole. So, being a dutiful engineering student, I did. For the next three hours, I sat there, half asleep. When he finally arrived, he’d forgotten his keys. He didn’t climb onto the roof or break a window, which wouldn’t have shocked me. Over the next week, he gradually lured me into our first project — a little teeny robot arm for simple tasks.”
Bares says Whittaker’s aggressive style attracted ambitious students. “When you’re trying to build a team, with no funding, you enroll people by being bigger than life,” he says. “I’ve done the same thing — ‘I’m doing this exciting thing, building an exclusive group. Come at the right time and I’ll let you look through the crack in the door.’” Bares accepted the challenge, working alongside Whittaker on a landmark project.
Early versions of robotic vehicles were, by current standards, laughably slow, requiring an hour of data processing and planning for each discrete move. But in March 1979, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island provided Whittaker with an opportunity. Applying increasingly powerful microprocessors, advances in software and the steady evolution of electronic sensing, his team’s robots had the ability to survey and repair the basement of the flooded reactor, replacing humans. The TMI project, with a shoestring budget of $1.5 million, began in 1983. “The TMI robot was 100 percent remote control,” Bares says. “There had already been robots on Mars, but that was boring. When we explained that our robot was doing a job that was too dangerous for people — they’d get cancer and die — people got interested.”
Four years later, Whittaker co-founded RedZone, a spinoff now specializing in wastewater inspection robots. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, Whittaker says he is revisiting nuclear issues. “The vast nuclear waste management and storage challenge has, has, has to be robotics,” he argues.
Following the TMI mop-up, CMU’s robots proved their reliability in ever more unpredictable settings: Pennsylvania coal mines, deserts in Nevada, volcanic vents in Alaskan volcanoes, Chile’s arid Atacama, and Antarctic ice fields. In 1997, when NASA sought a prototype to drive and drill on the moon’s surface, Whittaker again challenged his students.
“He wanted me to build the lunar digger,” recalls Thornton, who was beginning an accelerated CMU master’s degree at age 22. “He hired me for the summer. He trusted me right out of the gate. It started with our first meeting, with him laying out the basics: ‘It’s May. The robot needs to be built by August.’ ”
Ten years later, the triumph of CMU’s Tartan Racing Team in the DARPA Urban Driving Challenge grabbed headlines, the $2 million top prize from the Defense Department and the immediate attention of major U.S. manufacturers. The team’s Chevy Tahoe finished first on a 60-mile California course, navigating traffic and obeying regulations, and proved that self-driving cars were possible. “That race raised awareness. It moved [the idea] out of lab and into the world,” Whittaker says.
Historically, he notes, public challenges have often spurred technological leaps: the first trans-Atlantic flight, won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, offered a $25,000 reward. “Robotics has been blessed by three prize challenges (two DARPA competitions and the Lunar X challenge for a commercial moon mission). They change the way people imagine how things can be done.”
Imagining the next challenges
For the past 12 years, Astrobotic was seen as one of the favorites to win Google’s $20 million Lunar XPrize for the first commercial operation to land on the moon, travel 500 meters across its surface and send high-definition video and images back to Earth. The company was the only team to win all three of the competition’s milestone prizes for demonstrating success in landing, mobility and imaging. Despite netting $1.75 million in the process, however, the firm announced in December that it did not have a launch contract for 2017 and is now setting its sights on 2019.
“I gotta say, I particularly like 2019 for a moon landing,” Whittaker says chuckling. “It’s the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing. That’s a good year for the moon.”
Asked what the next technology prize challenges could be, Whittaker’s eyes brighten.
“Oh my — I’d never run out of them! What would move technology along and dent the world and mean something to humanity? I always like something where it is very simple, where there’s an unambiguous, objective outcome.” He rattles off an impromptu list.
“One challenge might be a quadriplegic ascent of the Matterhorn. It’s got some elegant lines. I like the feel of it. Think of mobility ultimately being prehensile —incorporating balance and dynamics, momentum, individuated strength, intriguing things. Robotics has a huge contribution to make prosthetics and human assistance.”
As a Somerset County farmer, Whittaker raises barley, oats and corn for cattle. As a pioneer in agrobotics, the applications of robotic digging, planting and harvesting, he naturally suggests a food challenge: “a fully automated enterprise that would provide all of the food for a town” for a specific length of time. “A great prize challenge for space would be to refuel a launch vehicle. That capability to refuel is the big thing. When you launch, 98 percent of the weight, the mass, is propellant that it takes to get up there. The ability to somehow replenish that propellant is the gateway to the universe.”
Whittaker is intensely loyal to CMU. “I don’t know that there’s another institution on the planet where I could have gotten away with what I’ve gotten away with here,” he says with a laugh.
“I am absolutely energized and enlivened— the technical excellence [here] is absolutely superb. I interact with a lot of students in a lot of ways. Honest to God, being around this crowd, it keeps you young.” Married 25 years without children, he takes deep paternal pride in his students’ accomplishments.
Four days after his ergometer competition, where he was the second-oldest competitor, Whittaker walked stiffly into his campus office. The race result? “I silvered,” he said cheerfully, and adds he might erg again in the future. “No 70-year-old guy is gonna win the Olympics. You’re doing it for the competition. It’s an expression of life, to be out there in some way. It’s not enough to finish — you have to surge at the end.”