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ROBOT DREAM, ROBOT REALITY

One of the big ironies of the DarpaTech conference is the disconnect between the program managers' lofty visions for the future and the often mundane experiments they show off. Robotics is probably the most striking example.In the cavernous conference hall at the Marriott Anaheim, Darpa's Ted Bially sketched out a vision of tomorrow's fighting force. Fleets of drones do most of the fighting, he said, and a couple of humans would be left to make a few big-picture decisions. Across the corridor, at the agency's Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems' display, was a prediction by Sen. John Warner (R-Virginia) in big, bright letters. By 2010, he foretold, one-third of America's deep-strike aircraft would fly without a pilot. (By 2015, a third of the ground vehicles are supposed to be unmanned, too.)Inside the booth, as if to confirm the senator's statements, a trio of flat-panel screens showed snazzy animations of U.S. drones blowing up Scud missile launchers to a techno soundtrack.But a few feet away, the reality was a whole lot more humdrum -- and a whole lot cuter.Kids from Carnegie Mellon University sat on the floor, redirecting their soccer-playing, robotic dogs. Drones still have a tough time seeing the world around them, and a game of soccer helps researchers figure out new ways to see the ball.Employees from iRobot -- the company that makes the drone vacuum cleaner -- were right next to the students. They were directing a gaggle of toaster-sized bots through a makeshift maze. Mechanical creatures aren't particularly good at cooperating with one another yet. This "Swarm" project is the beginning of an attempt to get the robots to work together.Looking over at the audiovisual extravaganza going on in the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems booth, an iRobot employee subtly shook his head. The people mesmerized by the slick presentation don't understand how hard it is for robots to do the most basic of things, he explained.He murmured, "It's so far off."

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