Viewing robots through a mission lens
September 16, 2020
Others have followed suit. The Veterans Affairs Department uses robots to assist with surgeries; transport supplies, lab specimens, medications, and dinner trays at medical centers; and even provide comfort care to residents at VA senior community centers in the form of robotic cats and dogs.
The Postal Service has explored the use of robots within its sorting centers for three decades and more recently has tested autonomous vehicles for long-haul transport. The EPA, National Institutes of Health, and Food and Drug Administration collaborate to employ robots to conduct large-scale toxicology tests. The Maritime Administration is exploring their use to clean up oil spills. And, of course, few robots have become as renowned as NASA’s Mars rover, Opportunity.
While many agencies are looking to robots to assist with mission-related tasks, some agencies are also viewing them through a regulatory lens. For example, NASA, the FAA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) all have a hand in defining rules of the road for robots and autonomous vehicles to operate safely in public spaces, while others are considering the privacy implications as robots increasingly interact with citizens.
The Postal Service has explored the use of robots within its sorting centers for three decades and more recently has tested autonomous vehicles for long-haul transport.
Even with this progress, the government’s adoption of robots is considerably behind what we see in the commercial sector. Roughly a third of federal executives surveyed by Accenture said their organizations are making use of robots to some degree in controlled environments, while only 4 percent said they are using them outside of controlled environments. By comparison, slightly more than half of global executives surveyed said their organizations are making use of robots in controlled environments and 9 percent said they are using them in uncontrolled environments.
These figures seem surprising given the vast number of potential federal use cases one can imagine. Robots come to mind first for jobs that are dirty, dull, and dangerous, and federal agencies certainly work in risky and grimy environments: Consider traditional lines of work like emergency management, homeland security, logistics, maintenance, facilities management, law enforcement, wildfire management, and military operations. Robots also enable a wide array of physical interactions in remote and hard-to-reach areas. And more recently, robots have made in-roads into other fields such as healthcare, therapy, customer service, and more.
So, what does it take to view one’s mission through a lens of robotics? In a nutshell, it takes focus, imagination, and education. DARPA, for example, has run numerous robotic challenges to assess current capabilities as they might apply to DoD missions.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Department of Agriculture have teamed up to sponsor the U.S. National Robotics Initiative, which aims to accelerate development and use of collaborative robots (known as co-robots) that work beside or cooperatively with people.
And the Homeland Security Department—through its Science and Technology Directorate—has partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop performance standards and conduct evaluations of robots that could help with various DHS missions.
As agencies begin deploying robots in service of their varied missions, they will confront another big consideration: Making sure those robots are trusted, safe, and secure. How will agencies build trust for robots among the variety of stakeholders who will encounter them? How will they design and govern the way robots interact with people and environments? And how will they address legal, liability, privacy, and ethical issues that may come up with their use?
These are critical points to get right. Increasing percentages of consumers that we surveyed believe robots can make their lives easier (48 percent) and more efficient (41 percent)—yet, a similar number (39 percent) say they are concerned robots will introduce more problems than they fix.
Robots come to mind first for jobs that are dirty, dull, and dangerous, and federal agencies certainly work in risky and grimy environments.
Federal executives have even greater concerns: 71 percent of federal executives surveyed—compared to 59 percent of global executives—believe social and service robots in public spaces will raise major ethical, legal, and societal concerns, including security threats and privacy risks.
These are complex issues that will require study and a survey of best practices. It will be important for agencies to proactively help people who interact with these devices to understand machine behavior. Agency leaders will need to think about the types of expertise they may need—such as in the fields of user experience and human-machine interaction—to navigate these uncertain waters
To help minimize potential disruptions that robots may cause in uncontrolled environments, agencies can design devices in a way that clearly conveys intent. They can use simulations to explore and address specific safety issues. And they will need to work with industry partners to standardize these systems where possible.
of federal executives say their employees will be challenged to figure out how to work with robots, while 43 percent believe their employees will easily figure out how to work with robots.
Potential use cases and opportunities may be evident, but there can be little progress without a receptive organization. Are agencies’ cultures and leadership ready for robots? How about their stakeholders? And do they possess the skill sets needed?
Our research suggests there will likely be sizeable hurdles for some agencies considering forays into robotics. Three-quarters of federal executives surveyed said they expect their employees would resist any near-term moves to adopt robots; 73 percent said they expect their customers would resist; and 71 percent said they expect society would resist it.
Moreover, 57 percent of federal executives say their employees will be challenged to figure out how to work with robots, while 43 percent believe their employees will easily figure out how to work with robots. Getting the right skills in place to execute and sustain robotic endeavors can also present challenges. There have been large increases in demand for robotics technicians (a 121 percent increase since 2017) and for data scientists (an 88 percent increase between 2018 and 2019).
A good way to start is by launching discovery initiatives to understand the state of robotics capability—and limitations—as it relates to an agency’s missions and operations. Although autonomous capabilities offer many exciting possibilities, they cannot match the human brain’s breadth of intelligence and dynamic, general-purpose learning. Instead, focus robots on well-scoped purposes, particularly for automating routine or 3D human tasks.
Agencies can bring needed focus by assembling a cross-functional working group, led by a senior departmental executive, to identify, explore and pilot opportunities that will deliver compelling business outcomes. They should craft strategies for building, buying, or partnering with the right organizations to develop needed skills, expertise, and capabilities. Along the way, it will be critical to proactively solicit and address the concerns of affected stakeholders, including employees, through robust interactions and communications. To more easily scale these efforts, agencies should consider establishing centers of excellence to concentrate capabilities, maximize visibility, and address regulations and standards that can ease wider adoption and applicability.
The rapid shift towards “contactless engagement” has reinforced the role that robots can play in performing dirty, dangerous, and dull work. At the same time, it has also underscored their potential to provide companionship within a virtual world. Consider these steps:
Agencies can benefit by identifying additional opportunities to use robots to maintain business operations. Beyond traditional use cases, governments like Singapore are using robots to encourage social distancing.
Agencies should prepare for robotics to become more pervasive even faster. Shifts in consumer behavior and new economic realities will likely accelerate the development of autonomous robotics and new use cases. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that robot makers have increased their focus on the home delivery market in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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A SlideShare highlighting key survey findings in one concise document.