Roboticist Dennis Hong Inspires Students To Change the World - Higher Education
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Roboticist Dennis Hong Inspires Students To Change the World

by Katti Gray

The rat-a-tat of details begins with Dr. Dennis Hong’s mention that he’s quite busy these days. He’d spent a whirlwind week with a crew of documentary filmmakers from South Korea. ABC’s Diane Sawyer has the Korean native on her interviewer’s docket. He declined a recent invitation to host a show on the Science Channel. “I’m an academic, a professor,” Virginia Tech University’s award-winning Hong said. “If you’re not careful, you become a TV personality, and people challenge the credibility of your work, even if the science is quite credible.”

Much of the pioneering roboticist’s notoriety rests in his award-winning all-terrain robots—created with his student researchers in the ground-breaking RoMeLo (Robotics & Mechanical Laboratory) that he founded at the Blacksburg, Va., campus—and his bid to build a car, which blind people can drive, even if on a kind of auto-pilot. Vehicles for the blind were the subject of the mechanical engineer’s recent presentation for TED Talk, an award-winning video series devoted to global change-makers and innovators in “Technology, Entertainment and Design.”

Pressing him on his cutting-edge vehicular science, a commenter’s online post about Hong’s TED Talk applauded the scientific daring of a purported car for blind drivers.

“But I don’t see the technology becoming more than a novelty,” the commenter wrote.

Hong’s counter: “The real goal, of course, is a car for the blind. It’s a real thing. There are a lot of things I didn’t get to say during the TED Talk. From the blind community’s side of this, they really want to show the world the blind can do anything the regular-sighted can do with technology … . Do I believe this vehicle will be a reality? Yes I do. When will that happen? I do not know.”

The timetable matters less than the broader goal, he said. Hong’s aim is to make the concept of robotics accessible to the average Jane, while showing its real-world, everyday applications—and raising a next-generation of roboticists who share those intentions. For their part, Hong’s students have made their own rarefied mark. For one, they have been the only American contenders at the international RoboCup competition, with Turkey playing host to this year’s contest in July.

“Professor Hong is trying to improve the world with robotics, its application and potential,” said junior Jack Newton, a computer engineering major, who is in that circle of researcher-RoboCup competitors. “That kind of vision makes you think, ‘Wow!’ You want to get in on that and be a part of changing the world.”

Viktor Orekhov, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, who through RoMelo obtained a government contract, agrees.  “I’m working on a full-sized robot for the Navy, a firefighter on their ships that’s sent in to explore damage and put out the fire, so that humans are not at risk. If you can make a humanoid maneuver a Navy ship, that can be directly applied elsewhere … to hospitals, around the house, helping the elderly, people with disabilities. That’s the underlying motivation.”

Orekhov added that Hong, a NASA Summer Faculty Fellow and two-time winner of the National Science Foundation’s Career Award for extraordinary teacher-scholars, reinforces both in the classroom and the laboratory where student researchers spend so much of their time.

Hong, who grew up in a family of scientists and holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Purdue, said he’s gratified to have persuaded his students that robotics is its own form of service to science and to humankind.

“What I’m trying to teach my students is if they really work hard,” he said, “they can change the world. You always ask them that question … how many times in your lifetime can you change the world?”

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