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GCN : June 2014
BY PATRICK MARSHALL As robots have become more sophisticated and costs have dropped, they are taking on a multitude of service roles across the civilian government workspace. 18 GCN JUNE 2014 • GCN.COM Robots a on the home front It s no mystery why the military and manu- facturing industries have pioneered the use of robots in the working world: Robots can work easily in places too dangerous for people, and they can perform repetitious, mind- numbing tasks more e ciently than humans. As robots have gotten more sophisticated and their costs have dropped, they are now taking on new roles in the broader civilian government workspace. From mechanical fish that scan ports for terrorist threats to NASA s Robonaut 2, being trained to assist astronauts on the International Space Station, sophisticated robots are now being built for a variety of precision tasks across the public sector. "Government programs, and especially DARPA, have really spearheaded innovation," said Richard Mahoney, director of SRI International s robotics pro- gram, who has kept an eye on the evolution of robots. According to Mahoney, while the current gen- eration of robots has been put to work primarily in roles as passive sensors, a sea change in the advancement of their abilities is about to occur. Robots are now emerging that can more actively and precisely manipulate their environments to perform tasks ranging from removing debris in a hazardous environment to repairing the outside of a spacecraft. "I m excited about the emerging platforms that will allow robotic manipulation, said Mahoney. "Humanoid robots with arms and hands will come out at price points more appropriate for non-military applications." As this next generation of advanced robots is being developed , a market for smaller, simpler robots -- designed to perform focused tasks at very high e ciencies -- is also growing. "Keep it simple, put as many sensors on it as you can, as many wheels, as many ways to move around," said Susan Eustis, co-founder of Win- tergreen Research, a consulting company special- izing in technology markets. Invoking the iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner as a model, Eustis said the big value in current robots is in their ability to perform single tasks extremely well. Make it modular so that for any one appli- cation you just take the pieces you need, said Eustis. "You don t need to have a great big huge complex thing like Lockheed Martin would build at $5 million each." Apart from military and law enforcement, analysts also point to a number of public sector services that are likely to reap the early benefits of robotics; these include infrastructure monitoring, medicine, emergency response and exploration. In order to exploit these opportunities, robot designers underscore three key areas of develop-