Iris the Robot

Iris the Robot

By Jordan Block | iGeneration Youth

Decades ago when William “Red” Whittaker, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, was 8 years old, he built a small robot out of material from a nearby junkyard. This creation sparked in him a yearning to do more with robotics. Later he would go on to use that small idea to make even bigger and better things such as autonomous vehicles. Recently, he and Raewyn Duvall, a research associate at Carnegie Mellon, have been working on a lunar robot called Iris. Its goal is to show that even small things can be mighty.

Iris is set to use Astrobotic’s lunar lander Peregrine to get to the moon later this year, being the first-ever American lunar robot. (Astrobotic is a moon logistics company specializing in lunar technology. It is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was co-founded by Whittaker.) The rovers NASA put on the moon were not robots. “In fact,” says Whittaker, “NASA put moon buggies on the moon … but those were like electric golf carts and they had people driving them. They were not robots.” Whittaker notes that these rovers were solely controlled by humans and did not have many autonomous functions, unlike Iris’s capabilities.

Carbon fibers give IRIS as light-weight feel.

One unique aspect of Iris is the use of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber for the hull of the robot. With such little weight, the team had to think outside the box to design parts that Peregrine would be able to hold, pushing the boundaries of modern-day science. Also, Whittaker says, “The wheels on the robot look like thin bottle caps,” Whittaker says, highlighting the ingenuity that went into creating Iris.

“NASA is very, very interested in the moon, and they’re developing a magnificent robot,” he says, “but that robot weighs about a half a ton, which requires a big rocket and lander and could increase the cost of the program.”

“Robots are a big part of the future and small is the next big thing,” Whitaker predicts, noting that the cost to put a big robot on another planet is immense. Small missions can make frequent missions to the moon possible.


Duvall, the program manager of the Iris mission, says, “We are proving that a tiny rover that’s the size of a shoebox and weighs 2 kilograms can be worthwhile to send to the moon.

This team has helped create the first robot that will probe the moon.

“One of the biggest things about this rover that really makes it different isn’t even necessarily the technology going into it,” she says, “but the fact that it is built by students.” Close to 300 student engineers and scientists at CMU have worked on Iris, with over 100 students working on it at one time. Duvall says that because the people working on Iris are students, they bring more creativity to rover development than is common in other development cultures. So not only is Iris small but mighty, but the new aspiring engineers and scientists contribute to that notion as well.

These student engineers have been vital in the testing process of Iris. Duvall mentions that the testing was not only to see the capabilities of Iris but also to prove that something so small could do its job.

IRIS gets some hands-on attention.

The little robot has undergone thermal, vibration, electrical, radiation and many other tests. These tests were all done to ensure that Iris could fulfill its lunar objective that something so small and compact could contribute to the space industry.

People should focus not on a “cool rover headed to the moon,” but the fact that we have an amazingly small, unique and student-built robot being sent there. Everything about Iris might be small, but it will prove that it can make a huge contribution. You can make an impact yourself. While you may be a kid and think your ideas are too small or insignificant, they’re not. We come up with the newest, most creative ideas in the whole world, so don’t give up just because you’re young. If you work hard, just like Iris has, you can achieve anything!

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