They are all shapes and sizes, with all numbers of legs. They can put out fires on ships, shimmy up construction sites to do dangerous inspections, safely traverse battlefields and enter power plants to plug radiation leaks.

Oh, and they play soccer, too. One tiny one even break-dances.

These are just some of the products of the fascinating, endlessly creative mind of UCLA’s Dennis Hong, director of the legendary RoMeLa (Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory), and his intrepid band of robot-loving graduate and undergraduate students.

Not So Long Ago …

When he was 7 years old, Dennis Hong’s parents took him to see Star Wars: A New Hope. He was mesmerized by the movie’s iconic robots, R2-D2 and C-3PO. On the ride home, Hong announced that he was going to be a robot scientist. That sense of wonder and joy is still with him, and it’s a big reason why fledgling roboticists flock to RoMeLa. Quick to laugh, enthusiastic and a mesmerizing spinner of stories, Hong is one of the most famous and most written-about roboticists in the world.

He’s also as much artist as scientist. This is an engineer who says he always carries a notebook and pencil with him because inspiration can come from “everywhere and everything.”

… And Not So Far Away

When Hong was a graduate student, he took a study break in a park. “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.”

Out of that was born the three-legged STriDER (Self-excited Tripedal Dynamic Experimental Robot), which uses a novel approach to robot locomotion. (STriDER can change directions, is more stable than other walking robots and is easier to implement.)

This kind of imagination, not surprisingly, draws hordes of talented would-be robot engineers from around the world. Hong’s RoMeLa team includes 20 graduate and 18 undergraduate students, building and testing their creations with a passion and exuberance only the truly dedicated can muster.

RoMeLa grad student Mike Bradley, who came to UCLA from Connecticut to pursue his robot dreams, explains that “Dr. Hong always preaches [that] if you’re not having fun, you’re not using all of your potential.”

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

Hong’s method of choosing who gains access to his magic kingdom is as iconoclastic as his approach to engineering robots. “I do not like 4.0 students,” he declares. “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.”

Mechanism Makers of Westwood

That kind of student interest and excitement is exactly what Tsu-Chin Tsao, chair of the Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Department at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, was looking for when he brought Hong to UCLA in 2014. With 12 research groups pursuing cutting-edge work, UCLA is already a leader in robotics research and education. But the university’s ambition is to build one of the great robotics programs in the world, and it’s only just begun.

Since 2011, Tsao and his team have sought out and brought onboard three robotics superstars. Besides Hong, UCLA has welcomed Jacob Rosen, whose specialty is surgical robots, and Veronica Santos, who leads the Biomechatronics Lab, which works on artificial hands.

The interests of the UCLA robotics faculty are broad and deep; among many others, these interests include Tsao’s work on dynamic systems and controls; computer science professors Stefano Soatto and Demetri Terzopoulos’ work on how computers “see” the world around them; and the work of artificial intelligence pioneers Judea Pearl and Richard Korf.

“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,” says Jayathi Murthy, dean of the engineering school. “The field is advancing at lightning speed, and our students and faculty are at the forefront.”

A Short History of Robots

The idea of artificial life has consumed the imagination of human beings for millennia. More than 2,000 years ago, Greek philosopher Aristotle mused about the freedom that people would enjoy “if every tool, when ordered, or even of its own accord, could do the work that befits it.”

In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical knight that would sit up, wave its arms and move its head. History does not reveal whether the medieval mechanism was ever built. (Not coincidentally, the media has also dubbed Dennis Hong the “Leonardo da Vinci of robotics.”)

The word “robot,” in fact, is almost 100 years old. It was first used in a famous 1920 Czech play by Karel Capek called R.U.R. (“Rossum’s Universal Robots” in English). Robota is Czech for “forced labor.”

Today, there are so many robots with so many different functions that it’s hard to precisely determine how many exist. Is a drone a robot? Siri? Depends on your definition of “robot.” UCLA’s robot engineers, not surprisingly, say a robot is only a robot if it can perform a physical action.

But by any definition, there are a lot of them. In 2010, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimated that there were more than 8.6 million industrial and service robots in the world. The Robotic Industries Association estimates that some 236,000 robots are now in use in U.S. factories, placing the United States second only to Japan in robot use.

By 2018, according to the International Federation of Robotics, global sales of privately used service robots will total approximately 35 million units. Another 25 million domestic robots (vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers, window cleaners, etc.) will be in use. Plus another 9 million “entertainment and leisure” robots.

“Robotics has really taken off in the last four or five years,” Tsao says. “We are fortunate that we started this process early so we can get ahead of the game.”

The People’s Robots

The mechanical men and women manufactured by Rossum’s Universal Robots, like so many other fictional incarnations of their nonorganic kin, wiped out mankind and took over the world. In real life, of course, the robot engineers of today are confident of a much more positive outcome. Which probably explains why the most famous Dennis Hong robot is also the cutest.

On the third floor of UCLA’s Engineering Building IV, Hong sits cross-legged in front of a seamless backdrop for a photo shoot, cradling a ridiculously adorable, 18-inch-tall robot called DARwin–OP (officially, Dynamic Anthropomorphic Robot with Intelligence–Open Platform, but everyone just calls it “DARwin”). It is a teaching and research robot created by Hong as open-source technology.

Thousands of DARwins are in use around the world, helping to teach robotic locomotion and autonomous actions, and generally tinkered with by roboticists everywhere. The little robot that break-dances is DARwin’s 10-inch sibling, DARwin Mini, which is controlled by an app.

Then there is the big boy on the block: humanoid robot THOR (for Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot). Just under five feet tall, THOR is an imposing metal presence designed for disaster-relief scenarios, such as going into an irradiated nuclear plant.

Out on Limbs

Hong is often asked which of his robots is his favorite. He responds by paraphrasing a saying: “If you bite all 10 fingers, they all hurt.”

The creation he’s most proud of isn’t really a robot at all. It’s a car that can be driven by the blind. “It’s not an autonomous car,” Hong explains. “This is a car that a visually impaired person can make active decisions in and drive.”

The blind-driver car is the first of its kind in the world. A lot of firsts come out of a Dennis Hong team, some humanoid (before he came to UCLA, Hong created the very first autonomous humanoid robot in the U.S.), some employing novel robot engineering ideas, and many that look nothing like the robots envisioned by Isaac Asimov: the snake robot that can climb structures at construction sites (the aforementioned scaffold-climber). The low-cost prosthetic hand that uses compressed air. Chemically actuated soft robots. And, of course, STriDER, among many others.

RoMeLa may be Disneyland for roboticists, but its leader insists that, all the fun notwithstanding, 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,” Hong concludes. “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.”