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Lt. Col. Robert Kang is program manager of “life sciences and human factors” at the Air Force’s European Office of Aerospace Research and Development in London.

Lt. Col. Robert Kang is program manager of “life sciences and human factors” at the Air Force’s European Office of Aerospace Research and Development in London. (Ben Murray / S&S)

UK weekly edition, Wednesday, May 23, 2007

There are some pretty cool jobs in the Air Force, but when your 10 a.m. meeting is with a guy who attaches electrodes to flies’ brains to see how their eyes work, you know you’ve stumbled into an interesting career field.

As a program manager of “life sciences and human factors” at the Air Force’s European Office of Aerospace Research and Development in London, it’s Lt. Col. Robert Kang’s job to seek out and foster scientific research the Air Force may be interested in in the future. On the fly experiment, for instance, finding out how the insect’s tiny, simple eye gathers information to help it angle its wings for landing may help the military one day make a maneuverable drone the size of a honeybee, said Kang, a clinical optician who has a doctorate in vision science.

To find such projects, Kang and his co-workers scour Europe and the globe for applicable research projects, which they can then fund with grants. Sound interesting? It is.

How would you explain what you do to a 12-year-old? Good science is good science and there are good scientists in Europe, and wherever possible we would like to work with good scientists in Europe. So, that’s my job.

I was told you’re working on something to do with insect vision. What’s that? The Air Force is looking at building micro air vehicles … and you want these things to be independent. We could duplicate a human eye, but it’s very complicated. A mosquito’s eye is relatively small, simple, so we want to be able to understand how that insect’s vision works.

How do you do that? People have built these air corridors with different colors and patterns. If you’re moving patterns around in certain ways, you make an insect feel like it’s flying faster than it is … and you see how it reacts. The way they do that is to attach an electrode to the brain.

What is the most interesting project you have going right now, other than fly experimentation? I have a project that’s in Germany and Sweden. It turns out that there are insects that live in tropical forests where even during the daytime, because of the tree cover, it’s almost like dark. Yet these insects are able to fly around without hitting anything. That goes against what we know about insect night vision, so this project is going to look at, “How do they do it?”

Is there something you’re working on right now that, in 10 or 15 years, will be something I put in my coffee every morning? No. What we do here is basic science. By the time it’s been researched and fielded it’s been 10, 20 even 30 years.

Do you find that you’re never able to shut your brain off? As a clinician your sense of accomplishment is immediate — when you go home, you go home. In this position there are no emergencies, but the work never ends. There are things that are always going on.

Have you had any projects that didn’t pan out? That you worked on and worked on and then said, “Well, that was a waste of time.” You know the famous quote by Edison, “Now I know a hundred ways not to make a light bulb.” Failure is not failure. … You learn from each experiment. I think Edison’s point is very valid: Everything you do, you are learning from it.

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