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Carnegie Mellon's robotics whiz oddly trapped in the past

Seeing Red

By Ashlee Vance, 21 Jun 2006

RoboBiz For the last twenty years, the same robotics story has been written time and again. It goes something like, "The future is here. Robotics has moved from promise to reality and is set to explode as a major money-making field."

Local robotics legend William "Red" Whittaker trotted out that tired line today here at the Robo Business conference. Never afraid to pat himself on the back, the Carnegie Mellon University professor promised a future full of autonomous vehicles, automated farming equipment and devices that can crawl through sewers and mines and do so for a serious profit. Whittaker's placid speech stood in contrast to a number of other presentations at the conference where robotics experts argued that much work remains to erase robotics' reputation as just about the most hype filled industry.

At one point, Whittaker proclaimed that, "It's just pretty wonderful to see (robotics) emerging as an authentic industry." He then took this notion one step further by saying that, "There is no way to do justice to the things that are done here (in Pittsburgh)."

The tall, confident professor pitched Pittsburgh as the epicenter of robotics development, saying its impact on the field is comparable to Silicon Valley's impact on computing technology or Seattle's impact on software. And with Pittsburgh hungering for something with hi-tech gloss to replace a decaying steel industry, city officials must welcome Whittaker's enthusiasm.

In reality, however, Whittaker has failed to dominate the two most prominent robotics advancements in recent years.

Stanford, for example, won the ultra-celebrated DARPA Grand Challenge event with a Volkswagen Taureg named Stanley designed by the school's artificial intelligence lab. Whittaker's Carnegie Mellon team took the second and third places with a pair of Hummers. It's unlikely though that many will remember where the Carnegie Mellon teams finished years from now with all of the glory going to the victor.

It's clear that Carnegie Mellon's poor performance in the first Grand Challenge – where its vehicle went only a few miles – coupled with the more recent loss has left a bitter mark in Whittaker's mind. During his speech today, the professor would only refer to Stanford's winning team as "the Volkswagen guys."

Whittaker also glossed over the success of iRobot's Roomba vacuum, which has garnered by far the most attention in the consumer robotics field.

Carnegie Mellon's aspirations, of course, stretch well beyond making vacuums.

Whittaker directs the university's Field Robotics Center (FRC), which works on large-scale machines geared toward more industrial tasks. You'll find the Demeter project for a self-propelled hay harvester, the Icebreaker system for exploring the South Pole of the Moon, and the TRESTLE project for creating robots that can handle complex assembly.

In addition, a major point of interest for Whittaker and Carnegie Mellon is the Ferret project, which centers on a robot that can produce 3D maps of old mines. There are between 200,000 and 300,000 abandoned coal mines near Pittsburgh that humans refuse to enter.

Whittaker showed some impressive videos of a Ferret device making its way through a mine and churning out a detailed map of the mine system along with pictures of the internal structure.

"A blockbuster for robotics is this underground world," he said.

Such technology could make its way to the military hoping to map out bunkers and caves. Similarly, Whittaker has his eye on mapping sewers in old cities.

"The vernacular in the industry is that you make money from robots in shit," he said.

But for a man so inspired by robotics, Whittaker overall delivered a very lackluster speech to the Robo Business crowd. As always, he gave off the impression that he's got the whole field figured out and that others are lucky to feed off the scraps Carnegie Mellon dribbles out.

Presenting the robotics industry as a mature field ready to seize the business world seems the wrong message to hand to a crowd that is in reality struggling to move past prototypes.

"We want to talk about the robot industry not the robot demo industry," said iRobot CEO Colin Angle, during an early presentation here. "The demo industry is doing quite well, thank you very much."

"It is an irrelevant innovation to build a robot that is too expensive for its target application," Angle continued. "The focus on things like walking robots research has substantially slowed the industry."

And, wouldn't you know it, Whittaker is busying away on some walking robot eye candy – a six-legged creature called Ambler.

As one of the major luminaries in his field, Whittaker would do a better job of serving robotics at large by wrapping his agenda in a more humble air closer to that of the practical Angle.

There's no excuse for dismissing the Stanford robotics team as "the Volkswagen guys" when Whittaker should have acknowledged the accomplishments of his rival. Similarly, there is no way to justify Whittaker's championing of the robotics field as having achieved a critical mass when little evidence backs up such claims.

As it often the case, academia plays in world separated from reality by quite a margin. It's a shame to see the quixotic types still dominating the robotics discussion when some very practical work needs to get done. ®

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