Why A Robotics Pioneer Puts His Faith In Machines

Aug 2, 2019

On today's program: Red Whittaker explains his journey from childhood rocket-building to roving the moon; pregnant women could be at higher risk for mental illness if they live near a fracking site; former employees of a popular Wilkinsburg coffee shop have accused the owner of sexual harassment; and if Kraft-Heinz ditches the football stadium on the North Shore, who's next to plant their flag on Pittsburgh football? 

Shaping the robotics revolution in Pittsburgh
(00:00 — 16:20) 

William "Red" Whittaker's robots have mapped coal mines, explored active volcano sites and cleaned up the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Their next stop? The moon.

Whittaker is the Fredkin professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, founder and director of the Field Robotics Center and the chairman and chief science officer of Astrobotic Technology, Inc. He says his robots are designed to deeply explore unpredictable environments, something he says the iconic Apollo 11 mission fell short of teaching humans.

Whittaker says years of studying the lunar surface from orbit have uncovered huge amounts of water and ice, plus hints of a great cave and tunnel system. Robots will help determine if those features can eventually support human life, he says. 

Fracking linked to mental illness in pregnant women
(17:52 
— 22:16) 

A new study found that pregnant women living near fracking sites are more likely to develop depression and anxiety. 90.5 WESA's Sarah Boden talks to Joan A. Casey, the study's lead author and an environmental health scientist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, who says increased traffic connected to fracking can degrade local air quality while increasing sound pollution and other commotion in a community. 

Sexual harassment allegations at a Wilkinsburg coffee shop 
(22:17 
— 29:26)

Since opening in May 2012, Wilkinsburg's Biddle's Escape quickly became a popular hangout spot for locals looking for community and a cup of coffee. According to several former employees, that reputation allegedly did not mirror what was taking place behind the scenes. 90.5 WESA's Bill O'Driscoll spoke with three women who have accused owner Joe Davis of sexually harassing them

The alleged incidents took place between 2012 and 2017 with women in their 20s or early 30s. All three say Davis was drinking prior to the events. None of the three women filed criminal charges. 

Hold the ketchup: Heinz Field naming rights in question 
(29:28 — 39:02)

Kraft-Heinz may not renew its naming rights to the North Shore home of the Pittsburgh Steelers when its current contract expires in 2021. According to Sean Gentille, reporter for The Athletic, the 20-year deal was a sweet one for Heinz at $57 million; the going rate at the time was $100 million or more.

Any name change would be the first in the stadium's history. Gentille says current contenders include PNC, Alcoa, Dick’s Sporting Goods and UPMC. He notes UPMC, a nonprofit, already has a working relationship with the Steelers and skin in the venue naming-rights game—including Duquesne’s UPMC Cooper Pavilion, the Penguins’ UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and the Double-A Erie Seawolves’ UPMC Park.

90.5 WESA's Julia Zenkevich, Julia Maruca and Hannah Gaskill contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.