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Robots in the Wild: Viewing Robots Through a Mission Lens

Accenture
16.9.2020

The field of robotics is advancing so fast it’s hard to keep up. Armed with these newfound capabilities, robots are literally pushing new boundaries.

The field of robotics is advancing so fast it’s hard to keep up. Designers are developing and fielding new materials, miniaturization technologies, artificial intelligence, sensors, and locomotion capabilities at such a dizzying rate that almost any robot imaginable, it seems, is becoming feasible. These advances, combined with shrinking hardware costs, are making robots far more accessible for organizations that have not traditionally used them.

Armed with these newfound capabilities, robots are literally pushing new boundaries. Consider Amazon’s small delivery vehicle, “Scout,” which autonomously navigates real-world obstacles like trash cans, pets, and snow blowers, and features a cute exterior deliberately designed to delight customers. Or Walmart’s new fleet of Bossa Nova robots that scrub floors, check shelf inventory, and sort inbound packages, freeing up associates to better engage customers.

And Boston Dynamics is releasing “Spot,” its first commercially available robot for open world use. Spot is a quadrupedal bot with a long robotic arm, designed so customers can apply it to a range of use cases like pipeline inspection or 3D mapping of construction sites. During the coronavirus pandemic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston deployed Spot with an iPad mounted on its back as a mobile telemedicine platform. The robot enabled hospital staff to remotely interact with patients and triage them in testing tents outside the hospital, thereby reducing the exposure of front-line hospital staff to the virus.

The Advance of the Robots

There is even a nascent but fast-growing Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) industry that allows companies to outsource the often prohibitive, up-front costs of automation, thereby offloading risk. The RaaS installed base is projected to experience a massive increase, from approximately 4,000 units in 2016 to more than a million in 2026.

Moreover, we already see signs that robots will soon evolve from primarily stand-alone intelligent things to swarms of collaborative intelligent things where multiple devices work together, either with or without human input. Contributing to these developments is the imminent rollout of 5G networks, which will further accelerate data streams and connectivity, creating more ideal conditions for robots to thrive around us. Eighty-five percent of federal executives expect that 5G networks will expand opportunities for robots to operate in uncontrolled environments in their organizations.

As robots become more accessible and versatile, enterprises will discover new opportunities to push the intelligence of the digital world out into the physical world. New use cases are sure to proliferate across many more industry sectors and government missions. IDC predicts that the global robotics market will reach $241 billion by 2023 with only half of that in manufacturing, the traditional mainstay of robotics sales.

This tracks with Accenture’s own research, which shows that 61 percent of global executives surveyed expect their organizations will use robotics in uncontrolled environments within the next two years. Interestingly, federal executives are even more bullish: Ninety-four percent of those surveyed said they expect their organizations will use robotics in uncontrolled environments within the next three years.

Viewing Robots Through a Mission Lens

As this robot proliferation unfolds, government leaders may be asking what this will mean for them and their agencies.

First, it will mean that mission-focused methods and approaches will need to be reassessed through a lens of robotics. Where will agencies find the greatest value in robotics, and what partners will they need to unlock it? What challenges will they face as they undergo this transformation, and what new responsibilities will they need to assume to their customers and society at large as they incorporate robots into their day-to-day operations? And is the workforce skilled and ready to support these changes?

Many agencies are already thinking through these issues as they enlist robots for a wide array of potential use cases that cut across the government’s vast mission set. Not surprisingly, the military has been a trailblazer within government. It employs—and envisions employing at even greater scale—robots to assist with explosive ordnance disposal, clear mines and roadside bombs, schlep gear and supplies in combat zones, serve as targets for firearms practice, scout battlefield terrain, conduct surveillance and reconnaissance, target and attack enemies, refurbish aircraft parts, and more.

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.

Read the full story and more related stories on Accenture

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