Hackathon aims to help Army combat drones used as ‘flying bombs’

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A weekend hackathon hosted by the U.S. Army Futures Command, AFC, headquartered in Austin will bring together tech startups and others who work with drones to combat the use of commercial technology to deliver explosives and spy on adversaries.

“These are basically flying bombs,” Jay Harrison, AFC’s command innovation officer, told KXAN. “That is something that we’ve seen around the world.”

AFC wants Austin’s tech community to come up with ways to fight back. The event, called “A Hack of the Drones,” starts Friday night at the Capital Factory, where AFC will move into office space next week.

It comes less than two months after a drone carrying explosives was used in an alleged assassination attempt targeting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The explosives detonated at a public event where Maduro was speaking, causing panic in the crowd.

AFC is also concerned about adversaries using small drones to spy on military installations, not just overseas, but in the U.S.

“The speed with which those technologies are available, the ability of bad actors to get their hands on those technologies very quickly,” Harrison said, “we have to counter that dynamic with our own innovators.”

The hackathon is attracting tech workers, defense researchers, and drone enthusiasts, including Markus Hogue, president of Irrigation Innovation Consulting. Hogue uses a thermal imaging camera attached to a drone to help clients find and fix problems in irrigation systems, and he thinks his work will translate to the Army’s needs.

Drone batteries heat up, he said, and his thermal imaging camera can spot the heat signature. “I can set a parameter of 100 degrees, when it hits between 100 and 110 to show me a red dot,” he said, “and that’s what i’m going to be looking for.”

Hogue demonstrated the technology to KXAN Thursday, launching two drones at Zilker Park, one affixed with the camera, the other the target. He monitored the thermal video feed on an iPad, where he pointed out a small spot darting around as the target drone moved.

“My objective this weekend is to find out how high can I go for a good reading,” he said.

The Army Applications Laboratory, the specific division of AFC running the event, will help develop some of the ideas that come out of the hackathon.

“We’re reluctant to set the bar at, you know, after 54 hours of pizza and soda pop, we’re going to come up with solutions that we can put in the field,” Harrison said. It could happen, he added, but they’re looking instead to help get a few ideas off the ground.

It’s one of the first public shows of what AFC intends to do in Austin, and its a precursor of what’s to come. 

AFC plans to launch the Halo Manufacturing Accelerator in late fall or early winter, Harrison said. Like tha hackathon, that initiative will combine defense strategy with private-sector developers to design and build small drone technology the Army can use.

The Department of Defense isn’t asking entrepreneurs to be experts in what the military needs, Harrison said; the Army will take care of that. What they need from Austin’s tech space are ideas.

“You can’t necessarily predict where the next great thing is going to come from,” Harrison said.

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