Mobile Robots

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.

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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

3-D Printing

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,

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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.

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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

Remote Sensors

From pollution, parking and traffic to finding bumps in the road, remote sensors can help cities monitor and improve their infrastructure.

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In Boston, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) developed a crowdsourced mobile app that uses smartphone accelerometers to locate potholes and defects in city roads. The project, called Street Bump, is still in beta, and the city is testing the app to ensure that the data collected is useful and accurate, said Nigel Jacob, co-chair of MONUM.

If remote sensing were a stock, Jacob said he would advise holding it. “The promise of this stuff is still very nascent,” he said. “There’s some very interesting early work, like Street Bump, but I think that over a period of time, you’re going to see the same kind of mass decentralized sensing platforms for doing all kinds of different data gathering in cities.”

One of the early challenges MONUM faced with Street Bump, Jacob said, was that many of the potholes reported by the app turned out to be the collars of manhole covers. Such a discovery led the city into discussions with public works about the future of the manhole cover, but did not, in many cases, lead to the simple fix of sending out teams to fill holes in the street, as they had originally hoped.

Governments around the world are turning to remote sensing to perform old jobs more cheaply and do new jobs that hadn’t been previously conceived of. In the U.K., smartphone accelerometers are being used to assess the smoothness of railways, as a cheap alternative to costly existing methods. Colorado Springs, Colo., is looking to smartphone accelerometer crowdsourcing to quantify the difficulty of its bike trails. And in San Francisco, researchers are experimenting with how to build an earthquake early warning system from a network of smartphones. — Colin Wood, Contributing Writer

Virtual Currency

Bitcoin is arguably the most high-profile example of the virtual currency trend that’s gaining momentum in the world economy. Bitcoin users exchange virtual coins as a form of payment without banks or government regulation, and they buy Bitcoins with “real” money or use computers to manufacture them in a process called mining.

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The value of Bitcoin varies based on demand, much like stock, so they only are worth something as long as people want them.

Bitcoin and other forms of virtual currency are gaining steam with consumers, but Michael Cockrill, Washington state’s CIO, isn’t so sure about digital currency’s future in government. Long before he joined the administration of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Cockrill belonged to the executive team of Qpass, a company that facilitated mobile commerce, so he has unique insight into the evolution of money and technology.

He’s pessimistic about future uses of virtual currencies in government for a number of reasons. For one thing, the currencies are too chaotic and insecure — Bitcoin in particular.

“It’s been hacked several times, and people just create more currency in an uncontrolled way and mess up the entire ecosphere for it,” Cockrill said. “That devalues the currency that exists.”

The Bitcoin network was the target of several apparent denial of service attacks. Some media outlets have speculated that those attacks were aimed at manipulating the currency’s value. 

Cockrill also thinks that virtual currency in its existing state would be unfit for government use. Virtual currency systems allow for unregulated transactions, and users can participate anonymously. The possibility of clandestine use raises concerns, and has led to speculation that Bitcoin’s biggest use is to buy drugs.


Photo: Michael Cockrill, CIO, Washington. Photo by David Kidd


Government leaders likely won’t support a payment system that allows secrecy and anonymity for suspect purchases.

“Regulatory issues, legislative issues — the government’s relatively conservative as it relates to adopting new technologies,” Cockrill said.

The public sector would also open itself up to criticism if it backed just one of the competing virtual currency networks. “Then government, as a major player, is coming in and messing around with the market dynamics by throwing their weight behind one or another kind of currency,” Cockrill said. — Hilton Collins, Staff Writer

Video Facial Recognition   

The federal government’s strong interest in using video and photo technology for facial recognition seems to indicate that the technology is on the cusp of widespread growth.

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The FBI is working with state governments to deploy a pilot version of a facial recognition database in 2014 that will have millions of searchable photos, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology regularly researches how facial recognition technology benefits government. Mainstream media outlets theorize that video — not just photos — eventually will play a large role in how the technology is used.

Today, however, facial recognition software for video may have a long journey to maturity. An April 2013 Atlantic Weekly article claimed that the FBI’s partially developed video surveillance and facial recognition technology wasn’t helpful during the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. Investigators relied on traditional closed circuit TV surveillance footage and eyewitness accounts.

Rhonda Patterson, CIO of the Arkansas Department of Correction, says the use of facial recognition software for video eventually will take off in government, but she won’t invest heavily until the technology matures.

“I think it’s a good area to start an investment in, but I would go light — this is one you’re going to have to hold for quite a long time,” Patterson said. “I do know there’s an interest in it.”

The Department of Correction uses video surveillance, but no facial recognition component is involved. However, Patterson said the technology could one day be used to improve access control for correctional facilities.

But she sees some significant hurdles that need to be overcome before video facial recognition achieves widespread adoption.

For one thing, the technology may not be ideal if you’re dealing with older images. “People’s appearances change,” she said.

And the current technology is too expensive for most state and local agencies.

“You [need] infrastructure in place, and then you have to have the hardware and software that go along with it,” Patterson said. “Then you have upkeep costs [and] monthly costs for usage and development, and then the monthly costs for administrating.” — Hilton Collins, staff writer