On a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York three years ago, Dennis Hong was captivated not by the giant blue whale, or the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, but by the ankle bone of a timid prehistoric deer.
The "double pulley" ankle gave the creature more bounce in its stride, an evolutionary advantage that enables today's suburban deer to bound gracefully over vegetable garden fences.
Hong took out his iPhone and snapped a picture of the diagram. He thought the concept might work nicely on his next robot.
That prehistoric deer's ankle became a knee bone for CHARLI, Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence, America's first full-size, two-legged, walking humanoid robot.
Hong, 40, the son of a famed Korean aeronautical engineer, is the Leonardo da Vinci of robots. Leonardo saw birds in flight and imagined a human flying machine. He studied human anatomy and in 1495 sketched what is considered the world's first robot.
Like the artist, Hong innovates by connecting things that most people might see as completely unrelated. His visions of pulleys and gears spring to life in a workshop in the basement of the mechanical engineering building at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
That's where Hong and a tight posse of 18 engineering students operate the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa), a relatively new and audacious entrant to the robotics field.
Virginia Tech's engineering school ranks 24th in the nation, according to the latest graduate rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Penn all field bigger, older, better-funded robotics programs.
But none of them has Hong.
He arrived at Virginia Tech in 2003, still in his early 30s. There, working with a small team of bleary-eyed graduate students and a shoestring budget, Hong built several of the most compelling designs to emerge in American robotics.
Hong's dream, though, has always been to win RoboCup, a little-known international competition that is one of the premier academic events in robotics.
RoboCup is an annual soccer tournament for robots.
Designing a robot that can find and kick a soccer ball is termed the ultimate challenge in robot design; not long ago, no humanoid robot on Earth could do it.
Hong first glimpsed the coveted Louis Vuitton Humanoid Cup in summer 2007, during a disastrous trip to Atlanta for that year's RoboCup. The trophy's visit to America was brief; it was headed back to Japan, where it had sat for five consecutive years.
For RoboCup 2011, in July in Istanbul, Hong and his students built CHARLI-2, stronger, lighter and more nimble than his ancestor. In his first match, CHARLI kept losing sight of the ball and failed to score a single goal.
Between games, on the sidelines, Hong and the students racked their brains for a solution.
They finally isolated the problem: CHARLI had a blind spot over his shoulder. They fixed it by hastily reprogramming CHARLI to approach the ball in a wide arc, so he could keep his sensor "eye" on the ball.
CHARLI charged back in a blaze of goals, setting a tournament record and positing himself as the Pele of robots. It came to a final match against Robo-Erectus, a black, bulb-headed robot from Singapore. The two machines teetered around the field for what seemed an eternity. Finally, CHARLI reared back and kicked a decisive shot past Robo-Erectus, who greeted the challenge by freezing into a submissive bow.
Hong, on the sideline, pumped his fist in triumph. Students leapt for joy. The trophy was coming home.
Back at Tech this fall, Hong was leading a tour for visitors from an entrepreneurial robotics lab in Fredericksburg, Va.
Hong drew their attention to the concrete-block trophy wall. In coming weeks, the RoboCup crystal globe trophy would take its place of honor in a display case upstairs on the engineering building's main floor.
"If you want the best students," he told the group, "this is the place."
Gesturing toward the trophy wall, Hong noted to the visitors that it was now out of space.
Dennis Hong: My seven species of robot
by Daniel de Vise Washington Post Nov. 18, 2011 12:00 AM
Dennis Hong a star in humanoid robotics