In order to settle on Mars, robots and humans have to work hand in hand, which will be possible soon, according to Red Whittaker, professor at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

(Photo: Carnegie Mellon University)
(Photo: Carnegie Mellon University)

“The robotics that support human life on Mars will be an entirely new class of robots,” Whittaker said.

President Obama announced Tuesday that the White House’s goal is to send humans back and forth to Mars by the 2030s “with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

“The robots will be up to it by that time frame,” Whittaker said. “There’s a clear sense of what’s called for and we’re going to come through.”

The robots that are on Mars for exploration purposes will have to be updated in order to perceive, plan, and process to solve problems in space.

“They have to be compatible with humans,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker is an expert in field robotics, which includes any robots that deal with physical jobs, such as cleaning up nuclear accidents, mining, and exploring outer space. Whittaker said that each subset of field robotics has its own unique factors, but most of the time the robots have factors in common with one another.

Whittaker will talk about his research and the ability for humans to live in space during a panel discussion at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

Whittaker said that when people think of space travel, robots are a given and no longer a dream of the future.

“That’s a big thing in its own right,” Whittaker said. “There actually was a day when robots were fantasy and science fiction and we had to find a way to make it real.”

The robots will also have to operate when humans aren’t on Mars to keep the facilities preserved and running. The robots will be responsible for excavating, shaping soil, shielding from radiation, mining for needed materials, generating power, and supplying transportation, according to Whittaker.

“What matters now are these new roles and capabilities that can fulfill them,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker said the market on Earth for robots that can perform these tasks will drive the innovation needed for robots that will operate in space in the near future.

“Could it be done? Absolutely,” Whittaker said. “Will it be done? Absolutely.”


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Morgan Lynch
Morgan Lynch
Morgan Lynch is a Staff Reporter for MeriTalk covering Federal IT and K-12 Education.