Automation Affection: The Defense Department is Learning to Love Bots
Bots have a bad name in no small part because of their role in Russian information warfare. However, the Defense Department is finding that when deployed for good, bots can liberate humans from repetitive tasks and allow people to perform higher-level work.
To respond to the growing complexity of threats and warfare, the Pentagon must find ways to get more out of a finite supply of personnel. Creating software applications — robots, or “bots” — to perform time-consuming and repetitive tasks is a way forward, said Winston Beauchamp, deputy chief information officer of the Air Force, at the UiPath Together conference in Arlington, Virginia.
“We don’t have enough people to do the work that we’ve been doing the way we’ve been doing it,” he said on the sidelines of the conference.
Older workers “remember fondly the days when we had rooms full of clerks who processed this stuff for us. That’s not the case anymore. And so, they recognize the imperative to change,” he said.
Change means the automation of business and administrative tasks as well as developing bots and artificial intelligence for warfighting functions.
One example is the permanent change of station, or PCS process, he said. Moving from one base to another involves volumes of papers and checklists to turn in equipment, sign out of barracks and offices and sign into new ones. It can be so onerous that some people choose to leave the military rather than fight through it, he said.
“There’s certainly some that is base unique, but a lot of it is common and probably should be,” Beauchamp said. “So, trying to put some order to that chaos is one area,” that automation can help.
Another area ripe for automation is military logistics. “You can imagine the scheduling of just-in-time maintenance on aircraft requires thousands of parts and lots of moving parts — pieces that have to come together at just the right time from depot maintenance as well as field maintenance,” he added.
Having the right testing equipment and tools on hand for aircraft maintenance, checking tools in and out and tracking and maintaining accountability for tools are also time-consuming tasks for the Air Force.
“All of these together are areas where we think we could dramatically improve efficiency of manually intensive processes,” he said.
According to data presented at the conference, the Air Force has saved more than $20 million by letting bots take over business processes.
The Air Force is achieving that through a hybrid approach of partnering with commercial vendors like UiPath and training and empowering Air Force personnel in robotic process automation, or RPA.
“So, the way UiPath does it, for example, it’s a module that allows you to generate building blocks without someone having to necessarily code it all from scratch,” said Beauchamp.
“You start by taking relatively low-end tasks and automating them wherever you can,” he continued. “Then you build a workflow by stringing those tasks together. … And you go up to the next level, next level, and eventually what you’ve got are higher order functions that now have been automated.”
The Air Force has a license architecture with UiPath that allows for quick access and deployment of code, he said.
One of the ways the Air Force is educating personnel about the value of automation is through the process of traveling to installations and meeting with them.
“We’re doing roadshow tours so that folks can come together … do a quick brainstorming session and come up with ideas and then maybe half of them will wind up being implemented — some of them on the spot,” Beauchamp said.
In addition, the Air Force has a “citizen developer program” that is training people how to do basic bot building without having to go through complete courses, he added.
Col. Rebecca Schultz, director of the RPA program for the 448th Supply Chain Management Wing, is on the front lines of the effort to train troops to build bots. She started by getting leadership on board with what automation can do and the need to spread it through the force.
Then, she sent out an appeal to the more than 3,000 people in her organization saying she was looking for innovators. “I used that soft skill and that word because if I said, ‘I have technology that’s going to be really exciting and it’s a robot’ … no one would have responded,” she said.
The response was positive, and dozens completed the class, she said. Many of the participants focused on generating bots to help with report building or feeding data into reports with different formats.
Leaders often want quad charts or other specific presentations and don’t think about all the layers of data that feed into such products, she said. “So, there were bots built into that kind of process. There were bots around hiring practices with HR, there were bots with finance reporting, and how to collate information, data and numbers.
“And then there was also even system access,” she added. “There’s supply system owners and supply specialists that have to go into 25 separate systems every month and set aside an entire day.” Now they just push a button to activate a bot. “They can do other work, and that bot does all the system access for them. It saved an entire eight hours,” she said.
One challenge is centralizing automation information and best practices across the Defense Department. Erica Thomas, intelligent automation process manager in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Comptroller, said her office has a shared platform that anyone in the department can join.
“It hopefully allows RPA to promulgate faster across the department and manage it better,” she said during the conference.
Today, there are more than 30 tenants on the platform, which is running more than 200 automations. All of the military departments and agencies are using the platform, she said.
In addition, there is a Defense Department robotic process automation consortium that meets monthly to share ideas, she said. Vendors also come to the consortium to demonstrate their technologies occasionally. “It’s an open forum for anybody to bring up any topics that they want to help better their own program and … learn from each other.”
The more difficult challenge, though, is applying robotic process automation and artificial intelligence on the tactical side. Beauchamp said there has been some success.
“One of the areas where we’ve made the most progress lately has been in sense-making,” he said. Sensors continue to proliferate and gather more and more data. “You don’t have enough people in the military, much less in the Air Force, to have a person looking at every video stream all the time — and frankly it may not be the best use of their time anyway.”
So, the priority is to build the right automation that can sift through all the video and image feeds, determine what’s relevant, extract it and feed it to a human analyst, he said. The goal is to compress the time needed to find a needle in a haystack by a factor of 100.
“It’s a very hard problem, and it’s been out of reach for so long because the processing capability as well as the algorithmic sophistication necessary to employ that processing,” he said. “The pieces are there now from a technology standpoint,” and so now the challenge is to pull the pieces together and make them useful in the field.
Clarifai is one of the companies working with the military on this problem. Ryan Epp, account executive for the Army and special operations community, said that Clarifai develops automations to narrow the scope and increase the precision of data that analysts and warfighters have to process.
“We can narrow their focus to instead of looking at the entire field, maybe just look at the 50-yard line, 30-yard line,” he said.
It is important to convey to customers that there is still a human decision maker in the loop, he added. “I think that that helps tremendously with the level of comfort. We are really supplementing, we are enabling,” and not replacing humans.
And supplementing and enabling warfighters is of great interest to the Army, Raj Iyer, the service’s chief information officer, said at the conference. The biggest area of potential for automation is joint all-domain command and control, the Pentagon’s campaign to connect sensors and shooters, he added.
“Because if you look at JADC2, the biggest pain point that we have is … looking at a number of legacy systems that have data and then … exposing them and bringing them into a common operating picture,” he said.
The Army has 11 different legacy systems that a commander must monitor, he added. “That is a lot of swivel chairing, right, and so I think it’s time to kill the swivel chair.”
The Army is working to build automations that replace the time-consuming manual steps in the chain. “We’ve already brought it down from hours to minutes,” he said. “I think we can go from minutes to seconds in terms of condensing that kill chain for sensor to shooter.”
As the Army works to modernize its systems and deploy new technologies — hypersonics, mobile short range air defense, integrated visual augmentation system, the synthetic training environment — it is looking to build in artificial intelligence, added Iyer.
“While we have a long way to mature to a general-purpose AI, we’re taking baby steps right now … starting with RPA to doing some machine learning,” he said.
Marc Surette, UiPath’s regional vice president for Defense Department business, said there is AI out there that can benefit the department. Some of it is developed by UiPath, but much is developed by other entities. The challenge is making AI tools work with Defense Department systems and processes.
“I view UiPath as a as a mechanism to help facilitate the integration of those tools from those third-party talented people,” into the department, he said. Otherwise, those tools are just one more thing people have to “swivel to,” he added.
Beauchamp noted that sometimes efficiency gains from bots and AI can scare workers into thinking their jobs will be eliminated. It’s critical to make clear to people that automation isn’t about cutting jobs, it’s freeing people up to do higher-order work, he added.
“Everybody would like to move up market in their job if they can and spend more of their time on the things that require judgment and less of their time on the more menial parts,” he said. For example, finance staff say they could find more wasted money in the budget if they spent less time transposing data between spreadsheets, he said.
Automating that kind of process can allow someone to go from spending 10 percent of their time performing audit work to maybe 60 percent.
“That’s something they want to do because they know that’s … higher added value,” he said.