The federal government doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to technology. (Remember the HealthCare.gov debacle? Or Solyndra?) Yet historically, it has been quite innovative, paving the way for much of the tech we now take for granted, such as GPS. The Department of Defense, in particular, is well aware of this, and over the years, it’s created new posts and programs to address the issue.
The latest of those initiatives, MD5, came to Brooklyn earlier this month, in a hackathon at New Lab co-organized by NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Some 120 participants developed products to address the challenge of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in megacities. The hackathon marked the public launch of MD5, a program to connect the Department of Defense with universities and outside technologists to speed up the development of technologies that address national security.
The program featured remarks from NYU Tandon’s dean, Katepalli Sreenivasan, as well as André Gudger, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy, and Capt. Christopher Wood, the Marine Corps‘ co-lead for additive manufacturing — yes, that’s his title. (The originally scheduled keynote speaker, Gen. Paul J. Selva, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was unable to attend.)
Wood spoke about how the military has changed its approach to innovation. In particular, he mentioned a recent challenge the Marines issued to its troops to come up with technology applications that would be useful in field operations. The challenge involved a humorous video featuring his boss, Lt. Gen. Michael Dana, the deputy commandant of installations and logistics.
Bringing hacker cred to the DoD
Though MD5 is billed as an accelerator, it’s really not: it won’t be investing in companies nor will it have a set timeframe or one specific location. Instead, director Adam Jay Harrison told Technical.ly, the program will identify talented technologists and connect them with resources and government contacts. Accelerator programs such as Y Combinator and TechStars, he said, may be a next step for many of them. Once their technologies are more mature, MD5 can also connect them with its sister organization, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, which fast-tracks the procurement process for defense technology.
There’s also a big educational component to MD5. NYU is among MD5’s seven current partner universities, which also include Columbia, Stanford and the University of Texas. The organization is partnering with those schools to organize campus hackathons and introduce courses, such as Stanford’s “Hacking for Defense,” to train students in defense innovation work. MD5 will also have an Innovator in Residence program, in which postdoctoral researchers will work up to two years with the organization to identify commercial opportunities for Department of Defense technologies. The program will initially launch at NYU, where graduating PhD students will be eligible to apply.
NYU is an especially good partner for MD5, Harrison said, because of its track record in developing accelerator programs. And, of course, its location in New York City is an ideal place to address topics such as security and emergency response.
“NYU knows how to do incubators, and it’s embedded in a unique way in the city,” he said.
The service academies are also getting involved. The weekend’s hackathon featured a contingent of students from the U.S. Naval Academy, who made the trip up from Annapolis, Md. Many of them presented demos during Sunday’s judging. Senior Dennis Devey, whose area of focus is network security, told Technical.ly he has participated in many collegiate hackathons but particularly appreciated the MD5 hackathon’s focus on developing technologies that can actually be used on the job.
“I really liked the way this one felt,” he said. “MD5 is doing something no one else in the government is doing.”
911 meets blockchain?
MD5’s weekend hackathon resulted in 21 projects, which were presented during the demo day. In addition to the Naval Academy students, the event drew many local developers and entrepreneurs, including Lou Auguste of Alexapath, whose team developed a new slide stage for its “Skype for microscopes.” Auguste’s demo during the hackathon, he told Technical.ly, was the first time he had shared microscopic slides live using the company’s platform. He added that he hopes to work with the Department of Defense in the future — particularly the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which first developed the concept of telepathology Alexapath now works in.
“Humanitarian aid is something we take really seriously,” he said.
The participants had the opportunity to tinker around with several defense-related technologies, including the augmented reality platform Flux and Kopis Mobile‘s Video Distribution Box, a rugged mobile computer. Attendees quickly became acquainted with the acronyms LoRa, for long-range radio, and Lidar, or light detection and ranging, which uses a laser to examine surfaces. One team made use of a rover for 3D mapping. Two others, surprisingly enough, incorporated blockchain technology: to summon civilian responders and to audit activity on a machine-learning platform that suggests appropriate emergency tactics.
One of the more intriguing technologies on display was Crystal Hull, a virtual-reality interface that provides a 360-degree view around the wearer, whose development was funded in part by DARPA. It’s geared toward soldiers inside armored vehicles, which have limited visibility. Crystal Hull would let them survey their surroundings in advance so that they wouldn’t encounter surprises — say, a lurking insurgent — once they opened the door.
The view is pretty surreal: you can see yourself as if you were outside your body. That takes some getting used to, and indeed, VR glasses have caused motion sickness. Adrian Porter, the cofounder of Eucleo, the Falls Church, Va., company that developed Crystal Hull, admitted as much, but he said he believes people will get used to the sensation, which will also diminish as the technology improves. In the future, he conjectured, becoming acclimated to VR may even be part of military training.
And the winners are …
The awards presentation kicked off in, er, dramatic fashion, with Harrison entering the room on a Segway to the tune of Europe‘s “The Final Countdown.” The judging panel included Tom Byers, professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford Graduate School of Business; Col. Pat Mahaney, senior military fellow of the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group; James E. Leonard, chief of the New York Fire Department; Anil Duggal, chief scientist at GE Global Research Center; Russ Unger, experience design director at federal digital services agency 18F and Elissa Shevinsky, managing director at recruiting firm Kearney Boyle & Associates.
The panel chose three winners:
- Sanctuary, an app powered by a mesh network that directs civilians to safe spaces and resources during emergencies.
- EL Tags, a wearable sensor system that allows fire squads to track which floor their firefighters are on.
- Visual Ops, a Raspberry Pi–powered system that supplies real-time communication to first responder teams.
In addition, the audience chose RadSpoke, a long-range radio system that kicks in during emergencies, as its favorite demo of the day.
— NSIN (@NSIN_us) October 16, 2016
The judges’ selected teams will receive up to $15,000 in funding, plus mentorship and support from MD5, the Army Strategic Studies Group and the FDNY. Three companies also kicked in prizes: Dr. Cosmos, a newly-launched virtual and augmented reality studio in Brooklyn, Manhattan branding and design studio Rocketure and Chicago patent consultancy KISSPatent.
Harrison, as well as the panel of judges, emphasized that choosing the winners was a tough task, and that several of the other demos also showed promise. One team, for instance, demoed an image recognition system that would allow first responders to easily identify sites of need based on particular objects — for instance, faulty air-conditioners during last summer’s outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. Shevinsky noted that she had worked on a similar machine-learning project to analyze photos: in that case, to find earthquake survivors.
“There was just tremendous tech ingenuity today,” she said.
Knowledge is power!
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