Student-built robot rover on track to explore the Moon

The robotics professor has been leading the development of a tiny wheeled robot called Iris, which could become the first uncrewed rover sent by the US to explore the Moon.

Iris has not been built by experienced engineers at Nasa or a large aerospace company, but by students at Whittaker's home institution of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh. The robot was recently secured to its lunar lander, ahead of a launch scheduled for 2022.

The project represents a dream come true for the robotics pioneer, whose work has spanned cleaning up nuclear accidents to building driverless cars.

On 28 March 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, experienced a partial meltdown in one of its reactors. Radioactive gases were released into the environment and the reactor building became too contaminated for people to enter.

Red Whittaker, who had just been awarded his PhD, built three robots to explore and clean up the reactor's radioactive basement. This, he explains, was "revolutionary" because, at the time, "there were no nuclear work robots".

The robotics professor, who is in his 70s, has since been behind many major advances in robotics. After the nuclear clean-up machines, Whittaker worked on robots designed to automate agricultural processes (he's a keen farmer) and explore disaster zones such as mine collapses.

Exploring the Moon was the result of a clear-minded goal he set himself more than three decades ago. "I formulated my own vision, way back in the 80s that, besides developing, securing, feeding planet Earth, I would explore worlds beyond."

Just four uncrewed rovers have ever explored the Moon - the two Lunokhods launched by the Soviet Union in the 70s and the Yutu robots sent by China within the last decade. The next few years could increase that tally considerably, as repeated flights to the Moon are made by private firms.

Getting to this point has not been easy. In 2007, Whittaker co-founded a space company called Astrobotic with the intention of winning the Google Lunar X-Prize, which had offered $20m to the first privately-funded team to land a rover on the Moon.

The money went unclaimed when none of the finalists was able to secure a launch contract by the deadline. But during the 2010s, many of the previous, lofty barriers to space exploration started to collapse.

And in 2016, US President Donald Trump's administration shifted the focus for human exploration at Nasa from Mars back to the Moon.

While the student-built rover will be entirely directed by commands from Earth, MoonRanger will be capable of autonomous driving, allowing it to roam beyond the radio communications range of its lander.

Looking beyond this mission, Whittaker says several other innovations have the potential to transform the way robots currently explore the Solar System. Currently, rovers use stereo vision to detect landscape hazards. Whittaker says that if laser-ranging technology called Lidar can be miniaturised to fit on a robot, it would be a "breakthrough".

Improved onboard chips that can better handle the large amounts of data collected by rovers would also be transformative.

Whatever the future holds, it's an exciting time for lunar exploration and those on the Carnegie Mellon team. From a personal perspective, says Prof Whittaker, "I've had such a good run of it, [building] robots for land, the sea, in the air, underwater and underground. Now my frontier is the high frontier".

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