Department of Defense, Army Futures invest in Austin hackathon ideas

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A three day hackathon focused on targeting drone dangers wound down Sunday as three teams of finalists walked away with the promise of $15,000 to support the ideas they’d created for the future.

That money came from MD5, the Department of Defense’s national security technology accelerator. MD5 hosted the “Hack of the Drones” along with the Army Futures Command, which recently named Austin home.

Army Futures announced Sunday it would also be investing in the hackathon finalists and looking at their ideas for future use. 

The students, academics, entrepreneurs and people with careers in military at the hackathon were tasked with finding ways to stop smaller commercial drones from being used to strike up violence. In particular, they were asked to think outside the box when it comes to countering these attacks from small drones and minimizing risk to civilians. 

Recently, the attack on Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro by drones carrying explosives illustrated this risk.

“I’d say that its a better than a 50/50 shot that at least one of the teams that was announced today as a winner is probably producing something that the department is using and buying in a very real way within the next 3 or 4 years,” said Morgan Plummer, the managing director for MD5.

Plummer explained that these small drones are a growing concern in the defense community, noting that they account for around a third of the problems the Department of Defense will come to the MD5 team asking about. 

“Drones are as relevant to a civilian walking around in downtown Austin as they are to an infantryman in Syria,” Plummer said. 

He noted that many of the solutions from the hackathon are ones the Department of Defense wouldn’t have come up with on its own. In particular, Plummer said personal connections between people with different skill sets was what sparked the creativity. 

Plummer said the Department of Defense has learned in recent years that it needed to look outside of Washington, D.C. for creative solutions, making it a priority to travel to cities with lots of entrepreneurs. 

“This is why Army Futures Command is here in Austin,” Plummer said. “The Department of Defense can’t do this by itself we can’t continue to solve problems in a traditional way, we have to be able to reach out, we have to be able to find new people.”

“There’s potential for us to receive funding to continue to work on his project for a little bit and move it to the next step,” explained Megan Culler with the team GigEmBytes, one of the finalists. Culler, a Texas A&M undergraduate student, found the hackathon a good way to start learning about cybersecurity when it comes to drones. 

“To fly back home, crash or land, stuff like that, it was surprising how easy it is to do that if you get access to the drone,” said Andrew Meserole, another member of the GigEmBytes team and a Texas A&M graduate student. 

Another one of the winning teams, the “A” team, believes their solution could be used to help in dangerous situations, for example, if drones were being flown over the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea.

“You can buy a drone for a couple hundred dollars or even less, and you can modify them for malicious activities,” explained Vinicius Goecks, a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M who was part of the “A” Team.  Goecks said his team’s project focused on finding and tracking drones in a way that was low-cost and easy to carry. 

“Detecting those small vehicles is a very hard challenge right now,” Goecks added, noting there is nothing on the market currently to detect smaller drones. 

“I like that it’s a way I can take research I’m working on and easily transition it to a real-world problem in the here-and-now,” said Nicholar Waytowich, a biomedical engineer with the Army Research Laboratory who was also a member of the “A” team.

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