Students and robots rule in RoMeLa

They can climb rocks and poles, play soccer, roll, walk on two legs — or three — or six, and mimic the motion of amoebas.  They have names like DARwIn, STriDER, CLIMBeR, and IMPASS.  They were conceived, constructed, and tested in a one-of-a-kind nursery called RoMeLa (Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory) in Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering under the supervision of director Dennis Hong.

In the future, some of their progeny may rank among the world’s most advanced and useful robots. Today, as prototypes, they are giving their human designers the most fascinating engineering education imaginable.


RoMeLa Laboratory and students Dennis Hong (center) and mechanical engineering students sit with robot DARwIn in the lab.

Blake Jeans, who earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in May 2008, spent the 2007-08 academic year working with mechanical engineering graduate student Shawn Kimmel on IMPASS (Intelligent Mobility Platform with Actuated Spoke System), a robot that’s shaped like a wheel with spokes, or legs, that can independently extend and contract to walk on unstructured terrain.  

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, IMPASS, Jeans explained, is a platform for research on robotic mobility.

"The increase in mobility we’re working on could have several potential uses, including search-and-rescue missions and exploration on Earth and other planets," Jeans said.

Jeans, who is returning to RoMeLa as a graduate student, is one of about 30 undergraduate engineering students who, along with 15 graduate students, have been getting hands-on experience, working on sponsored robotics projects under the direction of Hong, who teaches mechanical engineering at the university.

Undergraduates create a winner

Working under the guidance of Hong and graduate student Karl Muecke, a group of undergraduate students formed Team SPRInt (Soccer Playing Robot with Intelligence) and created an autonomous humanoid robot they named “DARwIn” (Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence).

DARwIn was the only United States entry invited to compete in the Humanoid League of the international RoboCup 2007 in Atlanta.


DARwIn plays soccer. Developed and programmed by the team to operate autonomously (without human intervention), DARwIn can stand up on its own and locate and kick a tiny soccer ball toward a goal. At the international RoboCup 2007 competition, RoMeLa's DARwIn 2A played goalie while DARwIn 2B tried to block a kick by a robot from Tamkang University of Taiwan.

The SPRInt and DARwIn teams also were invited by National Instruments (NI) to present the keynote demonstration during NI Week 2007 in Austin, Texas. While there, they won three awards, including the Most Outstanding Application of Virtual Instrumentation Award.


DARwIn kicks a ball. RoMeLa's motto is "Robot Evolution by Intelligent Design." Above: DARwIn kicks a ball. DARwIn and its creators were invited by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence to the International Robot Competition and exhibition in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they won the Technical Innovation Award.


Hong says he still aspires to win the RoboCup trophy. This year’s competition is July 14-20 in Suzhou, China. Virginia Tech’s team will be there thanks, in part, to significant corporate support.

“Corporate sponsorship is helping us a lot, especially for RoboCup,” Hong said. “This is an expensive competition. It’s in China. We need to bring all our students and a lot of equipment including three of our humanoid robot soccer players. One of the Darwin robots costs about $18,000. We need to build three of them.”

Three-legged STriDER makes its mark

Another RoMeLa invention that has met with great success in 2008 is STriDER (Self-excited Tripedal Dynamic Experimental Robot), a novel three-legged robot designed by Hong and mechanical engineering graduate students Derek Lahr, Ivette Morazzani, and Ping Ren. 

“STriDER is designed to walk with high energy efficiency,” Morazzani said, describing the mechanism’s motion. 

“STriDER’s height and long limbs make it ideal for surveillance because it can easily ‘see’ above bushes and other obstacles,” Morazzani said. “It can also be used for sensor deployment. The legs can be folded up and the whole robot can be launched into difficult-to-access areas — and the legs will absorb the shock of landing.”


Ivette Morazzani with the STriDER robot Graduate student Ivette Morazzani shows off STriDER, a robot that she and other RoMeLa researchers created. "As a graduate student in RoMeLa, I've learned the importance of teamwork, time management, and problem solving," said Morazzani.

Morazzani and her STriDER teammates won the Best Paper Award during the 2007 International Conference on Advanced Robotics, held in Jeju, South Korea. The group’s paper, “Novel Tripedal Mobile Robot and Considerations for Gait Planning Strategies Based on Kinematics,” has been published as a chapter in the book Recent Progress in Robotics.

The awards kept coming in 2008. RoMeLa’s Team CIRCA (Climbing Inspection Robot with Compressed Air), a group of four mechanical engineering seniors, won first place at the 2007-08 National Innovation Awards conducted by the Compressed Air and Gas Institute. 

CIRCA members David McDowell, Cory Kaser, Nicholas Thayer, and Florian Böss used compressed air to power a serpentine robot designed for inspecting unsafe or hard-to-reach areas such as bridge structures, tall utility poles, or scaffolding or girders in construction sites.

Another recent honor is a fitting tribute to RoMeLa’s focus on graduate and undergraduate research. Maxon Motor USA, a leading producer of precision motor drive technology, presented Hong and his students with the company’s Excellence in Education Award.

Honors abound

RoMeLa’s watershed year was 2007, beginning with Hong’s win of a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award for his work on a Whole Skin Locomotion (WSL) robot inspired by amoeba.



CLIMBeR robot in action The CLIMBeR robot (above) is being developed for climibing unstructured cliffs.

  • "Meet our Robots!"
    See the RoMeLa robots in action and learn about some of the technologies and science that put them in motion.
  • "RoMeLa's robot 'CLIMBeR'"
    The CLIMBeR (Cable-suspended Limbed Intelligent Matching Behavior Robot) is featured, along with Stanford University's climbing robot, in a video posted by New Scientist magazine.

    The CLIMBeR project is run by Brad Pullins, an undergraduate researcher in RoMeLa, and sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
  • HyDRAS-Arm
    Automatic Calibration and Intuitive Control of Manipulator Arms

More on Team SPRInt and DARwIn


DARwIn exhibit Hong (far left) and graduate student Jesse Hurdus (standing) demonstrate DARwIn for a group of school children during the National Science Foundation's Budget Roll Out and Open House in Washington D.C., in February 2008. The Virginia Tech research group was one of only 14 invited to science and engineering exhibits to the event.

Team SPRInt:

  • Robert Mayo, undergraduate leader;
  • Abhijit Chakraborty; 
  • Marilyn Duncan; 
  • Andrew Lynch; 
  • Ryan Misjan; 
  • Laurence O’Neill; 
  • Bill Pannell; and 
  • Eric Steinberg.

The next big project: CHARLI

CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Robot with Learning Intelligence), which will be the first of its kind in the United States, is a full-sized humanoid robot. 

It is sponsored by the university's Student Engineering Council and is partially supported by then National Science Foundation.

The 5 foot tall humanoid robot will be used as a general humanoid research platform and also for the RoboCup Humanoid Teen size league for RoboCup 2009.

"Eventually [we] hope to make it walk around campus and give campus tours," said Hong.

How STriDER does it

"The robot begins in a tripod stance and then shifts its body weight, causing it to fall forward. As it falls, the middle leg swings in between the other two legs and catches the fall," says Morazzani.

"Simultaneously, STriDER's body rotates 180 degrees, preventing the legs from tangling."

STriDER also can easily change direction by simply switching the leg it swings.

Another award-winning project


Dennis Hong and Victor Tango with Odin Hong is also a faculty adviser for Victor Tango, the student team that won $500,000 in the Urban Challenge. (Above) Hong is flanked by mechanical engineering graduate students Tom Alberi (right) and Patrick Currier as they work on their autonomous vehicle, "Odin."

Many of the technologies developed for the award-winning autonomous vehicle Odin is now transplanted into the brain of the next generation soccer playing humanoid robot "DARwIn II." 

DARwIn II will be playing autonomous robotic soccer against the top teams from all around the world in RoboCup 2008. 

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