Famed CMU Roboticists Help Shape Future of Space Exploration



David Wettergreen found himself in the Nevada desert a few weeks ago with a group of his students and a machine named ZoŽ. The Carnegie Mellon University robot rolled through the desert carrying a spectrometer, a device that measures wavelengths of light in the electromagnetic spectrum. As ZoŽ used the instrument to analyze minerals, Wettergreen and his crew focused more on what it would decide to do next.

"Robots are usually told exactly where to go and what to do," said Wettergreen, a research professor in CMU’s Robotics Institute. "We’re giving ZoŽ the flexibility to make its own choices. We’re allowing it to take measurements and make comparisons, then use planning strategies to decide where it should next explore to find similar minerals and efficiently conduct its investigation. Autonomy is our main goal."

Autonomy may also be the next frontier in space exploration. It’s what Wettergreen points toward as the world looks back on the 50-year anniversary of the first humans landing on the moon.

ZoŽ , pictured in South America’s Atacama Desert in 2013, was designed and built by the Robotics Institute.

Wettergreen was just 4 years-old when Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind in 1969. He has vague recollection of the momentous occasion.

His Robotics Institute colleague, William "Red" Whittaker, was 21 years-old on July 20, 1969, but nowhere near a television when Apollo touched down on the lunar surface. He was tucked away on Parris Island, South Carolina, completing U.S. Marine Corps boot camp.

Now the pair of roboticists is separated by 20 feet, with offices in the same corridor of Carnegie Mellon’s Newell-Simon Hall. Together they are helping to shape the future of robotics in space.

In 2007, Red Whittaker co-founded Astrobotic, a lunar logistics company, with the aim of taking payloads to the moon and beyond. Today, Astrobotic and CMU are at work on a small rover for NASA that could reduce space exploration costs. Read more at  https://www.cmu.edu/50/founder-stories/story-whittaker.html.

It has been an extraordinary summer for Whittaker, who is at the center of three moon research missions announced since early June. He’s currently building the first CMU rover to land on the lunar surface. The shoebox-sized, four-wheeled machine will hitch a ride on a spacecraft built by Astrobotic, which Whittaker spun out of CMU in 2007. The rover will primarily serve as a mobile video platform when it touches down in 2021. Carnegie Mellon’s MoonArk, an eight-ounce device containing hundreds of images, poems, music and more, also will be on the flight.

Whittaker’s other two moon projects, which are both funded by NASA, would create fast, small, autonomous moon rovers and additional specialized capabilities to explore lunar pits.

"The future of space exploration is robotics," said Whittaker, Fredkin University Research Professor and director of the Field Robotics Center. "In contrast to the Apollo missions, technology will serve as an extension of human presence. For example, America’s first lunar cave explorers will be robots, not people."

This is partially due to safety, Whittaker said, but primarily driven by cost. It’s incredibly cheaper to put robots than people into space at this time.

Wettergreen agrees, and that is why he is focusing much of his efforts on ZoŽ, which has received funding by the National Science Foundation for the last three years. Wettergreen said robots that explore the moon and beyond need to do more than just record what they find.

"Allowing them the autonomy to decide what to do next is necessary for future missions,” Wettergreen said. "When spacecraft eventually visit asteroids or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, controlling them from Earth, in real-time, will be impossible. Machines will need to possess higher degrees of capability that allow them to react quickly, on their own, to unknown or unexpected terrain and situations.”

Carnegie Mellon has given the cosmos a glimpse of this capability. Six years ago, using autonomous navigation software first developed at the Robotics Institute , NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity completed its first two-day autonomous drive. The technique enabled the machine to cover ground faster because it could keep moving between planning cycles. Autonomous drives allow rovers to move over multiple days, even on weekends and holidays when staff members on Earth aren’t available to pilot the controls.

Both Whittaker and Wettergreen admit it is hard to truly predict the long-term future of space exploration. As budgets and political administrations change, so will the priorities, initiatives and possibilities of exploring the galaxy and beyond. With the current focus on the moon and Mars, Whittaker finds himself looking back on a different milestone in his life as he works on the three announced CMU lunar projects.

"I built my own rocket as a 9-year-old kid in 1957, right after Sputnik was launched," Whittaker said. "I did it with spare parts from a junkyard down the street from my house. I could climb into it and pretended to ride.

"I obviously never made it to the moon. I guess I’m still scratching that itch."

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