Air Force holds first hackathon

By Senior Airman Michelle Patten
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

You’re probably familiar with a marathon, a 26.2-mile running race, but have you heard of a hackathon? More of a mental race, a hackathon is dedicated to tech-savvy computer programmers and other software developers who work intensively on software projects.

It may sound like a room full of geeks staring intensely at glowing computer screens, but these hackers were not breaking into protected computer systems. Instead, the term hacker refers to individuals finding creative solutions to problems.

Lackhack poster
(Courtesy graphic)

The Air Force hosted its first grueling 26-hour hackathon, called LabHack, Oct. 25-26 at the Tec^Edge Innovation and Collaboration Center in Dayton, Ohio.

Sixty-six hackers traveled from universities and organizations across North America to compete in the event. Many of the programmers, graphic designers and project managers were thrown together to work in teams with people they hadn’t met before.

The hackathon harnessed a concept known as open innovation where talent from the general community brings fresh ideas to solving problems. Open innovation is generally cost-effective as well because additional full-time staff is not required.

The goal of the event put on by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Wright Brothers Institute and Code for Dayton was multi-fold. For competitors, it offered the opportunity to learn new skills, compete against other teams and create a product within a short time frame. For the Air Force, the event was beneficial because participants were challenged to solve real problems using data from the AFRL. Using physiological data collected in their labs, participants were challenged to sense, assess, and find innovative solutions to improve and maximize human performance. The hope was some of the programming solutions from the event would be able to directly and positively impact warfighters.

AFRL studies human performance
Oxygen consumption, respiratory exchange rate, heart rate, total ventilation and gross atmosphere are monitored during a study conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Brooks City-Base, Texas. The AFRL investigates ways to improve cognitive and physical performance of battlefield Airmen. Data like this was provided to participants in the Air Force’s first hackathon to find creative ways to analyze and visualize information. (U.S. Air Force photo by Steve Thurow/Released)

“We wanted to join forces and challenge people to create innovative ways to solve Air Force problems through analyzing human-centered research,” said Dr. Scott Galster, AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing applied neuroscience branch chief. “Using a ‘hackathon’ as our platform allowed us to bring the community together in a fun and competitive way, while supporting our Airmen.”

Winners were judged on their creativity, originality, technological complexity and applicability in solving the Air Force problem assigned to their team. Prizes included cash, software tools and services, and books.

One challenge focused on teams creating an app that could be used in a wearable platform similar to a wristwatch. Another challenge was to take live-streaming data and find unique ways to analyze it.

The overall winning project from the hackathon took data from sensors that measure an Airman’s eye movement and created a program that creates a display of the data to highlight saccades or rapid movements. This type of information can be used to determine when an operator may be getting fatigued or stressed while performing a task.

Another winning project included a way to visualize data from a number of different human factors like respiration, eye movement and electrical activity of the heart – all important measures of how an Airman may be performing while in combat. The third place project focused on finding GPS jammers.

Whether the problem is assessing Airmen’s fatigue from operating multiple drones or finding other opportunities to improve human performance, the hackers gave new insight into using computer applications to solve Air Force challenges.