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Not just in space anymore: NASA turns to bots for ‘low-value work’

Working with UiPath, NASA set up four bots that automatically begin processing grant applications for the employees.

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Everyone knows NASA has robots in space and robots on Mars. But did you know NASA also has robots working in grants management?

When the White House made “shifting from low-value to high-value work” a priority in its 2018 President’s Management Agenda, it was giving federal agencies a mandate to pursue an exciting new technology: robotic process automation (RPA). NASA’s shared services office saw an opportunity to alleviate some of its more monotonous tasks, and allow its employees to focus on more meaningful work. NASA jumped on that opportunity.

Working with UiPath, NASA set up four bots that automatically begin processing grant applications for the employees. Before the bots, those employees had to print out and scan in every application, creating the necessary case file in a mindless, time consuming exercise. Now, those case files are ready and waiting to be processed as soon as the employees arrive.

“We get probably 75 of those [grant applications] in house weekly,” Pam Wolfe, the chief of the Enterprise Services Division in the NASA Shared services office, said. “That has been an automation that has saved us a considerable amount of time for pretty mundane task that gives [our employees] the ability to focus on more analysis and value-added work.”

Jonathan Padgett, vice president of public sector for UiPath, said NASA has access to two kinds of bots—attended software, where the bot checks in with the employee, and unattended ones, where the bot just does the work.

“The software provides ability to emulate tasks that employees do at their desks,” he said in an interview. “The software interacts with other apps so it can be trained to do invoice processing and automate many of the mundane tasks employees usually do.”

Wolfe said NASA’s four bots were chosen from an initial pool of 10 ideas where automation could be applied. They were chosen for their potential returns on investment, and the ease and speed with which they could be implemented.

“We are looking at what are our savings in terms of the employees’ ability to do different work and more value added work. Some of the processes we are assessing have a large return on investment,” she said. “We’ve taken an approach to assessing the ideas that come in by establishing a service request in our system where anyone can submit an idea for automation and then that idea gets reviewed by that division chief. Once it goes through that process, we do an assessment in terms of how mature is the process, how complex, how many systems are required, what would it take to automate it and what kind of value do we see out of that automation in terms of cost savings or reduction in support requirements.”

And NASA has the ability to scale the program up by renting more bots from UiPath. Padgett said NASA pays for the orchestrator, which manages the bots, the program that learns the workflow processes that are being automated, and the bots themselves, which vary in price based on whether they’re attended, meaning the bot is overseen by employees, or unattended, meaning the bot performs the work without checking in.

Wolfe said NASA spent about $150,000 for the four bots, which includes $20,000 for the orchestrator tool, and the licenses for the bots, which cost about $5,000 per year, per bot.

Wolfe said implementing the bots was a fairly quick, easy process. Depending on the nature of the automation, user-testing took anywhere from one or two weeks to a couple of months.

The most difficult part, Wolfe said, was getting the bot cleared for the security requirements, because they had to treat it like an employee. As such, each bot has a login and password, an identification number, and the ability to sign and encrypt emails, in addition to access to the account management system and a virtual private network (VPN).

“One element that was challenging was the security training which basically a human doesn’t get access until they complete IT security training. A robot can’t complete it so we had to figure out how to overcome that,” she said. “There was a lot involved in credentialing a bot.”

But UiPath was able to help get the bots set up and access everything they needed to begin working.

“There are a lot of misnomers out there about what a bot can or can’t do. It’s understanding how to get past any security concerns, and then properly implement the bot,” Padgett said.

NASA’s shared services center has other areas where RPA could be applied, like financial management, procurement, human resources and some IT services.

“All four of those projects were proofs of concepts,” Wolfe said.


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