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Pittsburgh Goes to the Moon: Business Spotlight on Astrobotic Technology, Inc.

May 10, 2011

A new industry is developing in a new economy—  planetary robotics in a lunar economy.  Yes, a lunar economy.    We have all heard about how private citizens can pay, I think the ticket is $25 million, to fly to the moon.  Would you honeymoon at a hotel, located on the moon?    Just how mainstream will going into space become?

Yesterday, I attended a lecture co-sponsored by Pitt Law’s Innovation Practice Institute (IPI) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU):  “INVESTING IN INNOVATION: Astrobotic Technology and Pittsburgh’s Quest for the Moon.”

My Personal Aside.   I LOVED THIS EVENT.  It was by far one of the most entertaining and interesting cocktail hour/lectures that I have ever attended.  Although I missed most of the robotics demo and hobnobbing half hour, once the powerpoint slides started, I was filled with such an immense feeling of this is where I need to be, in this city, at this time in my life.  You know, one of those moments. 

In the summer of 1992, I had enrolled in CMU as a Physics major.  My father was an industrial engineer and my sister a college junior at the time, majoring in Math.  I have always had a strong interest in sciences, all things mechanical.  My favorite high school teacher was my Calculus/Physics teacher Phil Carey who instructed ice skating on the side.  I was fascinated when physics and calculus concepts/formulas applied to practical real world matters, particularly sports (Mr. Carey demonstrated torque and angular momentum by doing  “edge spins” and “rotational jumps” in class).  An athlete myself, I was hooked and that was the direction in which I wanted my 17 year-old self to go.    Science, with maybe a view to being a patent lawyer.

Well, my life did not continue in that direction.  Despite my CMU sticker already being placed in the back window of my Dad’s car, I pulled out of CMU before classes ever started and enrolled in Bethany College, recruited at the last minute by the softball coach to join their collegiate team as a fastball pitcher.    Strongly influenced by Clinton and Gore in that 1992 election year, I changed my major to philosophy and political science.  Funny how life turns out.

Planetary Robotics & the New Lunar Economy  I wanted to take a few minutes to educate my readers about a smattering of the amazing things that are transpiring at CMU by the intellectual giants there, some of whom I had the privilege of meeting last night. 

       Last night’s event was a part of the IPI’s “Investing in Innovation” Lecture Series.   The featured company was Astrobotic Technology, Inc. (Astrobotic).  www.astrobotictech.com.  Warning:  This account may not be entirely accurate (did not record the lecture) and this post is an oversimplification of what Astrobotic and NASA are doing (but blog posts are supposed to be short).

      The Deputy Associate Administrator from NASA, Alan Ladwig, gave a lively introduction regarding the NASA program, how it is funded, and how robotics fits into NASA’s strategy (at the podium, Alan pulled an “Ashton Kutcher” and took a picture of the audience; he was going to tweet the picture!!!!).  Can’t wait to follow Alan’s tweets.  You can too here https://twitter.com/#!/AlanMLadwig

What Is Astrobotic?  It is a CMU spinoff that builds robots for commercial expeditions to the moon’s surface.   To date, Astrobotic and CMU have built and field tested 3 lunar rover prototypes.  Despite the rough terrain and extreme temperatures on the moon (above boiling point during day and 80 degrees below at night), these robots will collect 3-D video/data for numerous purposes, including but not limited to (lawyer jargon):

  •  exploring known deposits of frozen water, methane ammonia (Where there is water there is likely life); 
  • exploring helium3 deposits, deposited from solar wind (hopefully to be harvested as a nonradioactive fuel for clean fusion power plants to generate carbon-free electricity);   
  • gathering data for radio observatories, sheltered from Earth’s electromagnetic noise, to listen to the universe with unparalleled sensitivity.

      These explorations serve space agencies (i.e., NASA), energy companies, aerospace contractors, and the media and marketing industries (certain companies sponsor the expeditions).   The first launch will be in April of 2014 to the historic Apollo 11 site or to  newly discovered skylights that lead to volcanic caves.

      One of the super cool aspects of this roving robot will be its ability to be social, narrate its 3D video, and answer individual questions as its explores (don’t ask me how).    Assuming it clears its soft and accurate landing, the robot will even interact personally on  Facebook and Twitter!!!! (so for you business owners who still haven’t gotten your social media accounts up and running, may this inspire you to do so).

         Astrobotic has won six lunar research contracts from NASA worth $11.5 million.  It continues to fundraise and needs additional investors to help fund several missions.  

NASA’s Planetary Robotics Department= “The House that CMU Built”.   Astrobotic founder is the  accomplished “God of Robotics”, Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, a Fredkin Professor of Robotics at CMU.  Key materials for the robots and expertise are being donated by a wide range of sources, many of whom  are local to Pittsburgh: aluminum alloys from Alcoa, Inc.; propulsion design from Aerojet, Inc.; rocket engines from NASA; structural analysis from Lockheed Martin; space-qualified power controllers from International Rectifier Corp.

Onward New Pittsburgh!!!

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