2009 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: Mechanical engineering
Age: 37 | Blacksburg, Virginia
Associate professor at Virginia Tech
"What is free time? My job is my hobby."
When robots take over the world or at least the World Cup Dennis Hong '94 is likely to be at least partly to blame.
An assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, Hong is in charge of that university's Robotics and Mechanisms Lab (RoMeLa). There he advises the team of students who created DARwIn, the Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence that was the United States entry into last year's RoboCup, an international soccer competition for robots. For years, Hong and his students have been working to infuse robots with artificial intelligence in ways that are fun, challenging, and useful.
"I still cannot forget the mind-blowing sensation when I first watched the movie Star Wars," he says. "I was fascinated by R2D2 and C-3PO. Since then, I decided to become a robot scientist and never changed my mind."
Hong's interests, however, run far beyond creating mechanical athletes. Born in California and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Hong came to UW-Madison to study robotics under mechanical engineering professor John Uicker. But college life is about more than research and academics, and in spite of Hong's American beginnings, he found the transition to Wisconsin to be far from easy.
"When I first arrived on campus, I had no friends," he says, "and the unexpected cultural differences were quite a shock to me."
Madison offered a wide variety of activities to bring out previously hidden facets of Hong's personality. Trips to the Dane County Farmers' Market inspired in him an interest in gourmet cooking, and the Union's Hoofer outdoor adventure group sparked an interest in sailing, giving him both a physical outlet and a social network.
"The Hoofer Sailing Club not only helped me realize the joy of sailing and the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful lakes on campus," he says, "but more than that, it helped me adjust to the new environment and make a lot of friends."
Under Uicker's guidance, Hong's expertise in robotics grew. He went through graduate studies at Purdue University under one of Uicker's former students, Raymond Cipra '71, MS'72, PhD'78, before joining the faculty at Virginia Tech. There he founded RoMeLa, where he guides a team of fifteen graduate students and thirty undergrads through a variety of robotics research projects. His lab developed not only the human-like DARwIn, but also an autonomous vehicle called Odin that took third prize in a Defense Department competition, and a three-legged walking robot called STriDER. RoMeLa is also designing a whole-skin locomotion mechanism a robot that would move much like an amoeba, a useful tool for search-and-rescue operations as it would be more capable of crossing rough and broken terrain than any current vehicle.
However, Hong says, the challenges of the lab are secondary to the pleasures of mentoring students a principle he learned at the UW. "There is nothing more rewarding than teaching students to become leaders in their fields and to become better engineers to contribute to society," he says. "The Badger Spirit still lives inside me, and I never forget to be proud as a UW-Madison graduate."