Then and Now

It's early Wednesday morning, March 28, 1979, in the small towns south of Harrisburg, Pa. Suddenly, sirens are piercing the quiet and firefighters are scrambling into action. At the Three Mile Island nuclear generating station, the Metropolitan Edison Company has declared a "general emergency."

The worst U.S. accident in the two-decade history of commercial nuclear power has come dangerously close to releasing a life-threatening cloud of radioactive material.

Five years later, the contamination in TMI's Unit 2 reactor was still too hazardous for humans to enter. At Carnegie-Mellon University, William "Red" Whittaker (E'75,'79), a native of central Pennsylvania, and graduate student Jim Osborn (E'81,'86) led a team that designed a robot to probe the basement of the reactor building.

Their six-wheeled Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle, dubbed "Rover," sent back images of the reactor's core, showing for the first time that it had suffered a partial meltdown. The Whittaker team's next robot, Remote Core Sampler, brought back samples from the damaged walls; a third vehicle was designed to work inside the contaminated area.

The experience proved that robots had jobs outside of labs and factories and in the real world. From that realization, the Field Robotics Center was born.

Twenty-five years and many robots later, FRC's creations have probed the Antarctic, abandoned mines and the deepest sinkhole on the planet. They also proved the ability of autonomous vehicles to safely drive themselves on public streets when Boss won the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007.

And if Whittaker has his way, a robot designed by FRC scientists will someday win the Google Lunar X Prize when it lands on the moon.

In October, faculty, students and roboticists from around the world gathered in Pittsburgh to celebrate the FRC's 25th anniversary and Whittaker's 60th birthday.

Visit for details of the two-day event.
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |