From mechanical automation to developments in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, robots have made great strides in the past 30 years. Drones often get a lot of attention in the military and public safety fields, but robotics is expanding in other ways throughout the public sector.
To some, the general image of a “robot” may be a human-like machine that can carry out simple tasks. But in reality, robots take on a range of different forms, like kiosks and self-driving vehicles.
Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental sees the potential of robots in government. In the future, he expects robotics to start replacing person-to-person interactions for services rendered in city halls and state agencies, such as driver’s license renewals.
“The sense of a robot going around doing a task — we’ll see some of that, but I think we’ll see it be less overt,” Reichental said. “The mechanics and intelligence will be built into everyday tasks.”
Driverless cars are one recent example of robotic evolution, but Reichental says the trend will expand to other mechanical devices operated by people. In another 10 years or so, transportation and other tasks will be performed by intelligent machines that will ultimately be more efficient than having humans do them.
On the subject of drones, however, Reichental was more conservative in his predictions. While he thinks the military and emergency response aspects of the technology to be worthy of future investment, he has concerns about how well drones will ultimately be accepted by the public.
Reichental says a national discourse must occur on civil liberties and other issues created by the technology before he’d consider drones a stock worth buying.
“Once we get beyond [those issues] and we’ve defined as a society the boundaries of what is acceptable with drones, then you have an emerging industry and you can start to bet on it,” Reichental said. — Brian Heaton, Senior Writer
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3-D printing has become a hot topic. The increased range of materials that 3-D printers can use has greatly expanded the possibilities of the technology.
Enterprise-level machines can print at the molecular level,
creating extremely accurate, cost-effective parts in batches as small as one. The federal government uses 3-D printing to keep manufacturing in-house and shorten the production cycle. A concept conceived by an engineer in the morning can be held in the hand after lunch.
However, 3-D printing is still in its infancy. No one yet knows the potential that may be unlocked by the technology once it’s full grown, said Rob White, chief innovation officer for Davis, Calif. “If 3-D printing were a stock, I would absolutely buy, and in fact, I would try to figure out how I could become an early investor in that stock,” he said.
In a sense, White has become an early investor in the technology, promoting 3-D printing as CEO of i-GATE, a regional public-private partnership aimed at developing the local economy and spurring innovation. In March, White emceed a 3-D printing forum at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in which speakers forecast the technology’s impact on business and the economy.
3-D printing will transform the way services are offered, especially when it comes to the more industrial processes government is responsible for, such as public works, White said. Parts delivery, vehicle maintenance, commercial products and even medicine will all be greatly impacted by the technology. From clothing and food supplements to human organs, 3-D printers could someday localize the manufacture of almost everything, which won’t just change how local and state government does business, but also alter how everyone gets the things they need and want, he added.
“We’re only just now touching on what it can do,” White said. “The reality is that I don’t think most of us know where it will really go. That’s the wonderful thing about these kinds of technologies. Who knows what will happen? People will unlock ideas and things will come out of it. Who would have thought someone would try to print a human heart? But that’s what’s going on.” — Colin Wood, Contributing Writer
Online Electric Vehicles
As gas prices remain high and more emphasis is placed on reducing carbon emissions, electric cars are a more frequent sight on U.S. roadways. Charging stations for these cars are popping up in parking garages and roadside locations, but the next evolution of electric vehicle (EV) technology — embedded charging infrastructure under the roads — could be a long way off.
Ashley Horvat, chief EV officer for the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding, said state transportation agencies would need to see tangible economic and environmental benefits in order to rip up highways and invest heavily in embedded charging technology.
Horvat favors EV technology and would invest in it long term, but says it’s really hard to predict how underground charging would work. Once the technology is proven, she added, its success will depend on the business model used.
“The question becomes how you would charge people for that,” Horvat said. “I think it’s possible, but it’d be a lot of work to repave and to do all that.”
The Oregon Department of Transportation is part of the West Coast Electric Highway project that installed EV charging stations along Interstate 5 from Canada to California. The state also is involved with Drive Oregon, a nonprofit organization at the center of a public-private partnership interested in electrifying Oregon’s transportation system.
Horvat said projects to install underground charging pads for EVs should be controlled by transportation agencies. But public-private partnerships could help reduce risks caused by rapidly evolving technology. Pilot projects would be needed before deciding on the appropriate business model.
“It’s a very interesting concept that I don’t think we should be putting the halt on saying it’s not possible, because it could be in the future — just a little bit further into the future. That would be a real electric highway and pretty amazing.” — Brian Heaton, Senior Writer
View Full Story