UCLA’s Roboticists Create Advanced Humanoid Robots

Dennis Hong, director of UCLA’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa), with his graduate and undergraduate students, have designed innovative robots that can extinguish fires on ships, enter power plants to stop radiation leaks, climb up construction sites to do risky inspections, and safely pass through battlefields. Some robots can even play soccer, one tiny robot can break-dance. These robots come in different sizes and shapes, with various numbers of legs.

THOR (left) was designed to perform hazardous operations in dangerous places. DARwin was designed for educational and research use ... and robot soccer. Credit: Spencer Lowell/UCLA

When Hong was 7 years old, he watched “Star Wars: A New Hope”, which featured the iconic robots C-3PO and R2-D2. Since then, Hong has been fascinated by these robots and always dreamt of becoming a robot scientist. That joy and sense of wonder is still with him. This is a major reason why would-be roboticists end up in RoMeLa. As an individual, Hong is an enthusiastic and entertaining person and is a great tale spinner. He is one of the leading roboticists in the world and is equally an artist at heart. This engineer claims to carry a pencil and notebook with him, because inspiration and ideas can come from everywhere and everything.

On the bench in front of me was a lady braiding her daughter’s hair,” he remembers. “Of course, I’d seen braided hair before, but that was the first time I had seen the process of braiding. Three strands of hair, one goes between two. So I sketched the process. Ten years later, the U.S. Navy had a call for a proposal; they were interested in a new type of mobility robot. So I opened my sketchbook and saw the hair-braiding process. Suddenly, the strands of hair started to look like legs.

Dennis Hong, Director, RoMeLa

This inspired Hong to develop the three-legged Self-excited Tripedal Dynamic Experimental Robot (STriDER). The robot is more stable, compared to other walking robots, and can change directions. It is also easier to implement.

Such an innovation has attracted a crowd of talented and potential robot engineers from across the globe. Hong’s RoMeLa group comprises of 18 undergraduates and 20 graduate students, who are developing and testing their innovations with a fervor that is ingrained only in dedicated individuals.

Dr. Hong always preaches [that] if you’re not having fun, you’re not using all of your potential.

Mike Bradley, Grad Student, RoMeLa

“If you like robots,” says Hong about his lab, “this is like Disneyland.”

When it comes to selecting his team of innovators, Hong’s method is as unique as his approach to creating robots.

I do not like 4.0 students. I like 3.75 students. If you want a 4.0, you need to focus only on getting good grades. The 3.75 students — those are the ones who are creative. They’re hands-on, they like building things, and they really like solving problems.

Dennis Hong, Director, RoMeLa

Mechanism makers of Westwood

In addition to Hong, Veronica Santos, who heads the Biomechatronics Lab that operates on artificial hands, and Jacob Rosen, who specializes in surgical robots, are also part of UCLA. Since 2011, Tsu-Chin Tsao, chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department, along with his group at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, have welcomed three roboticists to develop unique robotics programs.

In addition to this, the accomplishments of other UCLA engineering faculty, which includes Demetri Terzopoulos and Stefano Soatto’s work on how computers view the world around them; Tsao’s work on dynamic controls and systems; and Richard Korf and Judea Pearl’s breakthrough study on artificial intelligence have further redefined the robotics field.

At UCLA Engineering, we are fortunate to have leaders in all the disciplines — mechanical engineering, computer vision, artificial intelligence and so forth — required for a world-class robotics program. The field is advancing at lightning speed, and our students and faculty are at the forefront.

Jayathi Murthy, Dean, Engineering School, UCLA

The people’s robots

Hong sits cross-legged for a photo shoot on the third floor of UCLA’s Engineering Building IV. He holds Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence–Open Platform (DARwin–OP), an endearing, 18” tall robot. Hong designed this research and teaching robot as an open-source technology.

Today, countless numbers of of DARwins are being used worldwide, aiding to teach autonomous actions and robotic locomotion, and providing a way of learning platform to roboticists. DARwin Mini is a sibling of DARwin that break-dances. This tiny 10-inch robot is controlled through an app. Another one is a humanoid robot called Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot (THOR), which stands less than 5’ tall, THOR has been specifically developed for disaster-relief operations, such as entering an irradiated nuclear plant. When Hong is asked about his favorite robot, he responds by paraphrasing a saying: “If you bite all 10 fingers, they all hurt.” However, Hong’s favorite is not actually a robot, but a car that can be driven by the blind. This is the first blind-driver car in the world.

It’s not an autonomous car. This is a car that a visually impaired person can make active decisions in and drive.

Dennis Hong, Director, RoMeLa

Before Hong came to UCLA, he developed the first autonomous humanoid robot in the U.S. In fact, plenty of firsts have come from Hong’s team, with some using new robot engineering ideas, some are humanoids, while others are not even close to the robots visualized by Isaac Asimov. For instance, the prosthetic hand that employs compressed air; the snake robot that ascends structures at construction sites; soft robots that are chemically actuated; STriDER, etc.

While RoMeLa may be a magic kingdom for budding roboticists, Hong insists that despite all the fun, practical makes perfect.

The more I study and research, the more I realize how far we are from the science-fiction robots — Rosie from ‘The Jetsons,’ C-3PO from ‘Star Wars’ and all the scary ‘Terminator’ robots. Only when it becomes a research program and finds its application does [a robot] idea become valuable. … If you look at all our robots, it’s technology that will help society and make people happy, give them independence and freedom. That’s what we do.

Dennis Hong, Director, RoMeLa

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