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Expo Exposé

"Most of these exhibitors will be doing a lot of interactive stuff. So you can build robots. You can drive robots. You can control some of the first-responder robots that will be out there. There will be some virtual reality demonstrations...and all kinds of other cool technology. I plan on going around and seeing everything."While 24 teams from around the world have been doggedly preparing their robot contestants for head-to-head competition on the DRC's four identical emergency-response test courses, another less-heralded set of teams has been toiling in the desert sun to prepare an Expo that promises to wow DRC visitors as much as the robots do.

Tent builders, exhibit designers, visual and audio experts, hammer- and saw-wielding West Point cadets, fork lift operators, banner raisers, among many others have been transforming the blank canvas of an enormous parking lot the size of four football fields into what will be a multi-faceted celebration of technology in our lives just outside the Fairplex Grandstand.

"There will be a ton of exhibitors all around," noted Tim Bailey of the contractor firm ManTech as he sat vigil next to the still empty 50 x 100 x 40 foot aviary tent, which will feature full-day schedules of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) demonstrations and activities. Among these will be demos of several UAVs' flying in formation, a ground robot and UAV working together to perform tasks, and opportunities for visitors to fly their own UAVs.

With roughly 80 exhibitor booths and 120 demonstrations to see, it is likely that some captivated Expo visitors will be tempted to miss some of the actual DRC competition that runs throughout Friday and Saturday (though they won't really have to, since the robotics challenge will be piped out to jumbotron monitors there). "There will be everything from robotics companies to STEM education groups to first responders showing how they already are working with robots," said Bailey. "Most of these exhibitors will be doing a lot of interactive stuff. So you can build robots. You can drive robots. You can control some of the first-responder robots that will be out there. There will be some virtual reality demonstrations...and all kinds of other cool technology. I plan on going around and seeing everything."

The largest exhibit in the Expo cuts an almost 500-foot-long diagonal swath across this tech-laden lot. Framed on a vast network of aluminum truss work that didn't exist here two days ago, it consists of scores of colorful wall-sized canvases and dozens of electronic and interactive displays that together tell DARPA's story of audacious innovation. From the Agency's birth in 1958 during the height of the Cold War through its nearly 60 years of defining next-generation technologies, it's all there. Taken together, it's a great reminder that the DRC represents just one of DARPA's past and present efforts to accelerate technologies critical to national security-world-changing technologies like the Internet, stealth technology, precision munitions, prosthetic limbs, and GPS receivers small enough to fit into a cell phone.

Even in advance of opening day, DARPA's expo is having an impact on some. "I am like a kid in a candy store," said Gary Semerjian, project manager with Watermark Event Management, which has been orchestrating the installation of the exhibit's audio and visual elements. It's an impressive sentiment, given that Semerjian has about 10,001 details to worry about as game day approaches. "I have been reading every single one of these murals and posters up here and trying to educate myself more about DARPA and what it has brought to the world...I am not just project managing, I am enjoying being here."

That's a heartening review that suggests thousands of DRC attendees may be in for far more than just an historic robotics competition.