Kam Leang: Robots Rule
May 7, 2015
In the killing fields of Cambodia, University of Utah mechanical engineering associate professor, Kam Leang, lived a childhood marred by gunfire and constant hunger. Thanks to a family in Tremonton, Leang landed in the safer, greener pastures of Utah, and he is now forging a successful career in robotics.
Q: You and your family fled Cambodia when you were 6 years old and took refuge in Thailand. Tell us about that experience and how that led to you coming to the United States.
A: In 1975 the Khmer Rouge came into power. My family and I were living in Battambang, Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge forced us to evacuate the city and move into the countryside. According to my dad, we lost everything and were forced to survive on small rations and anything we could find (or catch). Both of my parents and those who survived the initial wave of the takeover were periodically forced to do hard manual labor such as working in the fields, moving rocks, digging ditches, etc.
It was May 1979 when my family and I fled on foot from the outskirts of Battambang to Thailand. I was 6 years old, and I remember it being somewhat chaotic. There were lots of gunfire, explosions, and people doing what they could to run, hide, and survive. We traveled on foot, hiding during the day, and moving by night to reach the border, mostly through the woods. I remember being very hungry and thirsty. I remember needing to keep quiet.
But luckily we survived that ordeal, and when we finally crossed over the Thailand border in 1979, we were picked up by friendly forces and later shuttled to the safety of a refugee camp near Bangkok. There we stayed for about nine months, and then we won a lottery to be sponsored in the United States by the Carl and Don Borup families of Tremonton, Utah. At first, it was my mom and the three kids who were allowed to relocate. My dad and aunt were not so lucky and initially stayed behind. It took about another six months before the Borups were able to bring them to the U.S. to join us.
We are incredibly grateful to the Borup families for helping us start a new life. I look back often and I still can’t believe how lucky we were.
Q: What prompted you to come to the University of Utah?
A: One of the main reasons is the university and the College of Engineering have an excellent national and international reputation for research and teaching. It’s a great place for me to do research and teach and make an impact. Also, Utah feels like home to me because I graduated from the U with my BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering, and I spent a lot of my younger years in Tremonton. And let’s not forget that there is good skiing and the mountains are beautiful.
Q: Tell us about your research in control systems and robotics.
A: My research focuses on precision control and automation systems and applications in nanotechnology and robotic systems. Control systems are ubiquitous. They are found in everyday things such as the cruise-control system of an automobile, the autopilot systems in an airplane, and the simple temperature control system for a room or building. My research is both theoretical and experimental. My graduate students and I enjoy developing novel control systems — for example, to better control the movement of small tools at the nanometer scale for imaging and manipulating matter at the nanoscale.
More recently, we have been working on the control of aerial robots for applications in emergency response and autonomous environmental monitoring. We are interested in finding better ways to control how these robots move through a cluttered environment to avoid obstacles and how to better control and coordinate the actions of multiple aerial robots to perform a task.
Q: You are the founder and director of the University of Utah’s DARC Lab (design, automation, robotics, and control). What is its main research goal, and how do you want it to help shape the future of robotics?
A: The main research goal of the lab is to advance the state-of-the-art in the design, development, and application of control and robotic systems. We hope that what we develop will contribute new knowledge and design methodologies that will help make future automation and robotic systems work better in terms of precision, speed, efficiency, robustness, and reliability.
Q: How do you see robots evolving? How will they best be used in the future to help people?
A: I foresee advancement in autonomy and an increase in a robot’s ability to take in and process more information to effectively perform a desired task. I also predict there will be advancements in technologies that improve human-robot interaction. For me, robots are best used to help us solve complex problems and to assist us with tasks that are often too difficult, dangerous or physically inaccessible for us to perform. For example, they can be used to perform laparoscopic surgery, collect samples from an active volcano, mine deep beneath the Earth’s crust or at the bottom of the sea, or explore space.
Q: How did you first become interested in robotics and mechanical engineering? Is it something that started when you were young?
A: At a very young age I appreciated working with my hands and I enjoyed making things. It was my mom and dad who taught me to work with my hands. They were both so resourceful and made practically everything from whatever they had at hand. I think that rubbed off on me when I was growing up.
Shortly after high school I wanted to become an artist. But after the second semester I discovered mechanical engineering and that got me really excited. What got me interested in robotics was taking the mechatronics course from Professor Sandy Meek here at the U during my junior year. The course required us to design and build a basketball-playing robot. I was immediately hooked, and I became fascinated with control and robotic systems.
Years later, the first course that I’m teaching at the U this spring is the same mechatronics course that I took when I was a student here. It’s very exciting for me, and I hope to also inspire my students in much the same way that Professor Meek inspired me to work in the field of control systems and robotics.
The Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah is committed to providing students with broad-based, rigorous and progressive education. By combining state-of-the-art facilities with renowned faculty, the department provides an education that gives students the necessary skills to become the next generation of innovators.