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Altair Remembered – Robots, PC Pioneers And UAVs

April 2, 2010

How Words, Movies and Music Connect the Past and Future in War and Peace

What’s in a word? As an robotics engineer with a degree in English literature words are important to me, particularly scientific and technological terms. That’s one reason you’ll find abundant tech definitions and puny puns in my posts, let alone lamentable lots of loopy alliterations.

I hear there are heated debates in hell about my blogs between Ezra Pound, John Paul Sartre and Dennis Potter.  Although, I have been assured support from, Oliver Evans, Frederic Taylor and Peter Drucker based elsewhere.

Today instead of our usual fumbling frivolous attempts at funny Friday posts lets take a different path this week down a road of remembrance. In this post we discuss…

  • Altair the Forbidden Planet and Robby the Robot
  • Ed Roberts pioneering innovator of the Altair personal computer
  • General Atomics’ Altair UAV and others

All About Altair. “The name Altair is derived from the Arabic for “The Flying Eagle.”  The star is located about 16.7 light-years away from our Sun, in the north central part of Constellation Aquila, “the Eagle.”

One of my all-time favorite movies is Forbidden Planet (Altair). It’s a great classic science fiction film with a subtle and scary monster, the id. It features a very sexy Anne Francis as Altaira, who skinny dips! It’s smart and has plenty of heroic action. There’s a excellent cast starring Walter Pidegon and a serious Leslie Nielsen as the starship captain (a Kirk prototpe*). And best of all, it introduces us to Robby the Robot, who has Asimov’s Laws of Robotics in his heart. See the movie trailer, look for the Orrery in the opening scene.

“In the early 23rd century, the United Planets Cruiser C-57D is sent to the planet Altair IV to investigate the disappearance of a colony expedition sent 20 years earlier.

At about $125,000, Robby the Robot was a very expensive film prop for the time. The electrically-controlled landcar or “dune buggy” driven by Robby and the tractor-crane truck offloaded from the spaceship were also built for the film.

Robby was later featured in the film The Invisible Boy and appeared in numerous television series and movies. Like the C-57D, Robby (and his vehicle) appeared in episodes of The Twilight Zone.

The film features a number of Oscar-nominated special effects, groundbreaking use of an all-electronic music score.” From Wikipedia…**

The Military, Industrial and Research Complex

I graduated from SF State, while living in the Haight and working in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s. It was the dawn of the personal computer era and second surge of the growth in Silicon Valley. I was working in the machine tool business and was one of the first people to specialize in the applications of industrial robots in California.

I was guided over the floors of IBM, HP, Lockheed, Westinghouse and other industrial giants looking for work that could be automated using the first generation of  industrial robots from Unimation.  I also spent time with engineers with many start-ups like Atrai, Apple, and other long gone small companies as part of my job.

As a science fiction fan I was also delighted to get to tour astonishing research labs like Lawrence Livermore National LaboratoryNASA Ames Research Center, and SRI which was called Stanford Research Institute back then, before student peace protesters forced a name change. At SRI I got to meet Shakey the Robot, the first computer controlled, vision based mobile robot. See how little we’ve progressed in >40 years in this cool (Take Five) Shakey video considering that we futurists were projecting Jetsons like tech by now.

In a future post I’ll republish an interview I did with Charlie Rosen, the SRI scientist who led the research project. It was during this period that I was able to integrate my communication skills with my interest in technology, industry and my appreciation of entrepreneurs. I started writing and lecturing about robotics and other advanced technologies and the people who brought them to life. I will also post a recorded interview I did with Issac Asimov.*** In 1940, one of Asimov’s first stories was about  Robbie the Robot.” And in addition to his over 500 books, in 1974 Asimov collaborated with Paul McCartney on a film treatment.****

From 1966 through 1972, the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI International conducted research on a mobile robot system nicknamed “Shakey.” Endowed with a limited ability to perceive and model its environment, Shakey could perform tasks that required planning, route-finding, and the rearranging of simple objects.

More on Robots, Roberts and UAVs…

An enormous amount of innovation, entrepreneuring and dazzling technology was driven by the military needs of the U.S. and the talented scientists and engineers from the colleges and industries of Silicon Valley.  A good lesson on roots of electronic warfare and Fred Terman “The Father of Silicon Valley” can be seen it this fascinating Google video The Secret History of Silicon Valley . “How Stanford & the CIA/NSA Built the Valley We Know Today” presented by Steve Blank.

Remembering Ed Roberts

Ed Roberts, a very special man and personal computing pioneer passed away on April 1. The following joint statement was issued today by Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul G. Allen on the death of Ed Roberts.

We are deeply saddened by the passing of our friend and early mentor, Ed Roberts, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.

Ed was truly a pioneer in the personal computer revolution, and didn’t always get the recognition he deserved. He was an intense man with a great sense of humor, and he always cared deeply about the people who worked for him, including us. Ed was willing to take a chance on us – two young guys interested in computers long before they were commonplace – and we have always been grateful to him. The day our first untested software worked on his Altair was the start of a lot of great things. We will always have many fond memories of working with Ed in Albuquerque, in the MITS office right on Route 66 – where so many exciting things happened that none of us could have imagined back then.

More than anything, what we will always remember about Ed was how deeply compassionate he was – and that was never more true than when he decided to spend the second half of his life going to medical school and working as a country doctor making house calls. He will be missed by many and we were lucky to have known him. Read Gates post….

Ed Roberts was the founder of MITS and inventor of the Altair 8800, widely credited as the world’s first personal computer. It was featured on the cover of Popular Electronics in 1975, when Paul Allen and Bill Gates contacted Roberts and offered to write software for the machine. Gates and Allen worked with MITS in Albuquerque, NM, and started Microsoft. In 1977, Roberts sold MITS and retired to Georgia where he studied medicine and became a small-town doctor. Read full post…

David Bunnell, who was VP of marketing at MITS and went on to found PC Magazine, PC World, and Macworld, among other businesses, remembered his friend and colleague:

“In my mind, Ed Roberts will always be the Father of the Personal Computer Industry. Whether the Altair was the first PC or not isn’t that material, what really matters is Ed launched the most dynamic, fastest growing industry the world has ever seen. There would be no Apple, no Google, no Facebook without his initial contribution. And for me, personally, he taught me all about the excitement and rewards of being an entrepreneur.” Read the PC World article…

In an Atlanta Journal article Roberts’ son David related…

Roberts, an ex-air force man, later went on to careers as a farmer and a physician, but continued to keep up with computer advances: He recently told Gates he hoped to work with new, nanotechnology-enhanced machines, according to son David Roberts.

“He did think it was pretty neat, some of the stuff they’re doing with the processors,” said David Roberts, who confirmed Gates rushed to Georgia Friday to be with his mentor.

He sold his company in 1977 and retired to a life of vegetable farming in rural Georgia before going to medical school and getting a medical degree from Mercer University, in 1986.

Roberts worked as an internist, seeing as many as 30 patients a day, his son said. But he never lost his interest in modern technology, even asking about Apple’s highly anticipated iPad from his sick bed. “He was interested to see one,” said Roberts, who called his father “a true renaissance man.” See full story…

Digital Trends wrote this about Dr. Roberts…

The technology industry is mourning Ed Roberts, who died on Thursday, April 1, 2010, from pneumonia at the age of 68. Roberts was an unlikely technology hero, but his contributions to the computing industry can’t really be underestimated: in 1975, his company Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS) introduced the Altair 8800, a screenless personal computer with a whopping 256 bytes of memory, based on the then brand-new Intel 8080 processor. And it was a kit: users had to buy it and assemble the computer themselves for $397. But the impact of the Altair 8800 was astonishing: not only was it the first personal computer to be a success in the marketplace, it directly inspired folks like Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Steve Wozniak, who would later to on to birth the personal computer industry we have today.

Roberts had originally planned to become a doctor, but changed his focus to electrical engineering on meeting a neurosurgeon who shared his interest in electronics, and eventually enlisted in the Air Force where his electronics experience led him to teaching at the Cryptographic Equipment Maintenance School in San Antonio, and, after completing his degree, wound up at the Laser Division of the Kirtland Air Force Base weapons lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

He started MITS with some colleagues who were into model rocketry telemetry, but the company quickly started a successful business marketing electronic calculators, but price wars with larger electronics companies like Texas Instruments led Roberts to look to other devices…and the Altair 8800 was the result.

If you’d like to learn more about this important era in computing here’s a clip about “How the MITS Altair 8800 started the “personal computer” revolution” from “Triumph of the Nerds,” see video…

And finally for this not so funny Friday let’s find a couple of UAV short stories related to Altair.

Altair was built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated as a high altitude version of the Predator B aircraft. Designed for increased reliability, it has a fault-tolerant flight control system and triplex avionics. It is capable of payloads of 660 lbs (300 kg) internally and up to 3000 lbs (1361 kg) on external wing stations. Altair has a ceiling of 52,000 feet (15.2 km) and an endurance of 30 hours. It is operated by General Atomics although NASA Dryden Flight Research Center maintains an arrangement to conduct Altair flights.

General Atomics – Altair UAV

The remotely-piloted Altair unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., (GA-ASI) for NASA under NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) project. NASA is using the Altair as a long-endurance, high-altitude platform for development of UAV technologies and environmental science missions. As a technology demonstrator, Altair will help validate a variety of command and control technologies for UAVs, including over-the-horizon control, collision-avoidance and other technologies required to enable UAVs to operate safely and routinely with other aircraft in the national airspace. It is also being used to demonstrate the capabilities of UAVs to conduct missions related to Earth Science, disaster management, homeland security and law enforcement. The Altair took to the air on its first checkout flight on June 9, 2003 at El Mirage, California. From NASA article…

Lockheed’s Unfortunate – Aquila UAV

The MGM-105 Aquila (Eagle) TADAR (Target Acquisition, Designation and Aerial Reconnaissance) was the first United States Army attempt at securing a reusable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle .

Unfortunately for the Aquila – and the US Army and Lockheed itself for that matter – the MQM-105 became a bloated and expensive project that never lived up to expectations, forcing the entire development effort to be cancelled.

The MGM-105 project was officially cancelled in 1987 despite nearly 1 billion dollars sunk into the project. Some 376 Aquila’s were slated to be built. Lockheed was also considering an export version. See full article…

Remember that the star Altair is in the Constellation Aquila. And notice that the Aquila was part of the MGM-105 project. And recall that MGM brought us the movie Forbidden Planet. Coincidence? You be the judge. Me, like all good detectives, don’t believe in coincidences.

OK, if you’ve stuck around this long, maybe one joke. Robbie’s alone time…

So long, we’ll miss you, Dr. Roberts. Because we know where Apples  come from and he was no Fool on the Hill****.

Steve Jobs Reminds Us – Memento mori

Connecting the Me Dots at Stanford

As Steve Jobs mentions in his Stanford talk. We can’t connect the dots in one’s life until it’s over. Ed Roberts’ dots burn bright, like Altair in the Constellation Aquila, and yes there will be stars in his crown.

Peace on Earth and Elsewhere…


* The biography of Gene RoddenberryStar Trek Creator, notes that Forbidden Planet was one of the inspirations for Star Trek.[10]

** We really should support Wikipedia.

*** Asimov and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry a decorated  ex-air force pilot, developed a unique relationship during Star Trek’s initial launch in the late 1960s. The two remained friends to the point where Asimov even served as an advisor on a number of Star Trek projects.

**** In December 1974, the former Beatle Paul McCartney approached Asimov and asked him if he could write the screenplay for a science-fiction movie musical.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 31, 2010 12:54 pm

    A really interesting article. Thank you very much.

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