gears in a computer (cobalt88/

NASA paves the way for RPA

Robotic process automation, the technology that automates common, repetitive computer processes, has been around for more than a decade. More recently, a growing number of agencies have begun putting RPA to use, and NASA is leading the way.

“There was a lot of hype about the opportunities and the savings” associated with RPA, according to Pam Wolfe, the chief of the Enterprise Services Division at the NASA Shared Services Center. “And with us being a shared service center, part of our requirement is to reduce cost whenever possible and get more efficient with whatever we do.”

In November 2016, NASA held an innovation kickstarter, and Wolfe and her colleagues at NSSC submitted a project that leveraged RPA. Their idea was selected as one of 10 winners, and they got $10,000 in seed money to get the project started. Everything fell into place fairly quickly after that. In February 2017 NSSC started working with a consultant to develop pilot RPAs; the first pilot was live by May, and three more were running by August.

The bots automated processes related to financial management, procurement and human resources. Of the two financial processes that have been automated, one works on funds distribution for the NSSC Budget and Accounting Division. Whenever a budget is approved, a human employee decides how the funds will be distributed throughout the agency or division. These budget decisions are then turned into a template the bots can read; Then, using the template, the bot distributes the correct funds to each office. Finally, the bots provide spreadsheets with all ending balances back to headquarters.  

The other RPA in NASA's Office of the Chief Financial Officer creates IT procurements requests. This automation saves the CFO “a considerable amount of time,” Wolfe said. “But, more importantly, in that process was the ability to establish the business rules to ensure that you were making sure that you were capturing the IT purchases in the appropriate purchase group.”

A human resources RPA automates some of the suitability review procedures for non-government employees applying for federal jobs. NSSC uses ServiceNow for managing HR service requests. Before the HR bot, a request would come in as an email and have to be manually transferred to ServiceNow and assigned to a case worker. Now, the bot gets these emails, creates the ticket in ServiceNow and assigns it to the appropriate staff.

These four bots, two at headquarters and two at NSSC, were completed during the program's pilot phase. After the pilot, the agency still had concerns about managing and credentialing its new digital employees, so instead of opening agencywide access to the technology, NSSC continued testing it internally.

Since then, NSSC built an RPA for helping manage grant applications that was completed in April. Four other bots have also been finished, 15 more are ready to go through development and “well over 100” ideas have been submitted, Wolfe said.

While the timeline for adoption makes it look like RPA traveled a smooth road to implementation at NASA, there were bumps along the way.

The first complication was credentialing. One of the main benefits of RPA is its ability to move text, documents and folders between applications. But like most federal agencies, NASA requires strict authentication for access to different systems.

NASA employees have a user ID that lets them access the applications they need to do their jobs. This ID, along with other personal information, is stored on a personal identification verification card. Initially, NASA thought RPAs may not need PIV cards, but because access to some applications requires the card, the agency decided to give its robot employees PIV cards just like human employees. This meant creating identities that included mock Social Security numbers.

Another access issue involved giving the bots access to multiple space centers’ networks. That broad access would automate more processes more quickly, but it isn’t something usually given human employees. “A robot needs to be able to provide functions for multiple NASA centers, which is not the same as preforming a function for the agency, so it gets very complicated when you’re trying to provision roles that are different than what you’ve ever previsioned in the past,” Wolfe said, adding, “we’ve actually had to change some of the procedures in how we grant provisioning.”

NASA also ran into issues getting the initial software to run.  

“When we ran the processes and we manually initiated the processes they worked fine,” Wolfe said. “But when we put them in the scheduling tool, it was very inconsistent. We worked closely with the software vendor to troubleshoot what the issue was, and we finally came to the conclusion that, whether it was NASA firewalls or whatever, that [the] software was not going to perform as intended in the NASA environment.”

“[RPA] is something that’s about to take off,” NASA's Intelligent Automation Services Lead Brian Reed said at an RPA conference in April.

Meanwhile, Wolfe has demoed the technology for Langley Research Center. Although NSSC can’t provide RPA to the centers yet, it is giving them a chance to look at upcoming releases. Wolfe said she expects the agency to conduct a readiness review by July and, depending on how it goes, RPA could be available soon after.

“Langley cannot wait to move forward,” Wolfe said.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

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