If the miniature blimp had been working properly, the future of robotics might have been demonstrated in action yesterday in a Boeing hangar...

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If the miniature blimp had been working properly, the future of robotics might have been demonstrated in action yesterday in a Boeing hangar in Everett.

Instead, two little robots armed with Dell laptop computers continuously explored a few square feet of factory floor, but were unable to complete their mission: locating and surrounding a target cube, then guiding another robot to pick it up and attach it to the blimp.

Charles Erignac, a computer engineer at Boeing’s Phantom Works, envisions groups of such robots someday interacting, like a flock of birds or a swarm of bees, to accomplish their designated task.

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“They talk to each other in a peer-to-peer-type interaction,” he said.

In technical terms, that’s “heterogeneous platform collaboration” for “autonomous and intelligent systems.”

But on this occasion, the blimp had a sonar problem and misunderstood how far it was from the robots.

The two-day exhibition for Boeing employees, customers and others was not the sort of smooth and glitzy display most people associate with the nation’s biggest aerospace company.

But that was fine with the guys from Phantom Works, which does much of Boeing’s gee-whiz research and development. They were not ruffled by the blimp’s problem.

“We’ve only recently gotten all the hardware,” said Michael Kerstetter, a senior manager at Phantom Works’ Bellevue office.

A handful of people have worked on the project over the past year and a half, writing software that until recently was tested only on computer simulators.

They’ve been having problems with the sonar and have yet to see the robots and blimp collaborate as intended.

The point yesterday was not to demonstrate a perfected product, but to show employees what Phantom Works is up to.

A brainchild of McDonnell Douglas that was adopted by Boeing after the companies merged, Phantom Works used to be shrouded in secrecy — except to government customers — until the work was unveiled as part of a new program or product. But for the past couple years, Boeing has held expos like the one in Everett to show some of Phantom Works’ ongoing efforts to employees.

The St. Louis-based unit has about 4,500 employees, including roughly 1,200 in the Puget Sound area.

It has worked on Boeing’s unmanned combat air vehicle, the Army’s Future Combat Systems program and technologies used in Boeing’s new commercial jets.

Among dozens of displays at the two-day expo was a 40-pound unmanned surveillance aircraft, the ScanEagle, that is being used by Marines in Iraq. Phantom Works adapted the tiny vehicle, created by the Bingen, Klickitat County-based Insitu Group, to do surveillance.

There was also a small model of an X-50A “Dragonfly” unmanned aerial vehicle and a video of a prototype flying in Arizona.

The Dragonfly takes off like a helicopter, then its rotor locks and becomes like a wing that allows it to fly like an airplane. When it’s ready to land, it reverts to helicopter mode.

One demonstration yesterday called for three little robots to communicate with each other and attach a target cube to this miniature blimp. Unfortunately, the blimp had a sonar problem and misunderstood how far away it was from the robots.

Most of the displays featured small stationary models with some photographs and videos, making the mobile blimp and small robots all the more exciting.

Unlike many unpiloted vehicles, these robots do not need humans to tell them where they are or what to do next.

In the real world, they could find people caught in house fires or search for sunken ships by being plopped down in the right place, told what they’re looking for and then communicating with each other about what they’re finding.

A more military mind-set might consider their potential for locating and perhaps attacking a target. That’s the sort of thing that might interest the Army, which expects to spend billions on its Future Combat Systems project to modernize how it wages war.

Still, Phantom Works plugs away trying to get its blimp to talk to what Erignac calls its “high-school robots,” which cost less than $2,000 apiece but are good vehicles for checking out the new software.

Erignac prefers using his doctorate in computer engineering for these types of hands-on projects rather than for pure research, he said.

“You don’t end up being the world expert on a very narrow computer science problem, but you become an expert at putting technology to use,” he said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com