Best and brightest: Defence hackathon shows off Michigan talent

SOURCE: DoD / US Dept of Defense
Airmen from the US Air Force's Crisis Response Group board a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey from the Navy's USS Bataan at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, on September 4, 2019.

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

It’s clear that business and enterprise, in general, can hugely benefit from connections with academia. Having access to cutting edge research and some of the most innovative minds out there brings with it significant advantages. The US Department of Defense is absolutely no different.

The sector is constantly having to evolve, keep up with others, and pioneer the best of the best in national security.

Despite having teams of people dedicated to making sure this happens, access to people who view things differently is always a big bonus and something the department actively seeks out from America’s finest universities and colleges.


A novel and effective way to tap into this out-of-the-box thinking is by bringing the best and the brightest minds from academia and commercial industry together for one giant three-day collaboration – or a “hackathon.”

Wanting to get some fresh ideas around using artificial intelligence (AI) for aircraft maintenance, the department just wrapped up such an event at the University of Michigan’s School of Aerospace Engineering in Ann Arbor.

The event brought together over 50 computer hackers from the Detroit area to work alongside 30 of the department’s end-user military maintainers. They were collectively set the task of exploring AI solutions for predictive maintenance.

“The Department of Defense is a large and dynamic enterprise, but it represents only a fraction of the US population,” Managing Director of the National Security Innovation Network, Morgan Plummer, said in a statement.

department of defense
The Pentagon, headquarters building of the United States Department of Defense.

“We want to hear the ideas and harness the creativity of students and industry professionals to help the Department of Defense [find] AI-enabled solutions for predictive maintenance that will make us safer and more efficient.”

The hackathon was sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

“Our goal is to increase the quality and fidelity of the data we collect,” said Marine Corps Maj. Dan Tadross, an AI mentor from the JAIC. “This requires hackers to explore divergent thoughts and propose imaginative and unique solutions that we in the Department of Defense might not have thought about before.”

The hackathon challenged participants to examine two primary focus areas with data collection and user interface. Hackers were asked to present AI solutions for recognizing, classifying and quantifying maintainer actions in a way that’s intuitive for end-users.


All of this wasn’t just for fun, of course, the winners were awarded US$15,000 to take their ideas to the next level in partnership with the National Security Innovation Network. It’s a win-win for all parties involved, as Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and one of the judges, explains:

“This hackathon brought together a diverse group of incredibly talented and innovative people who, in a very short time, developed and presented creative solutions to a challenging problem.

“The collaboration between the hackers and our military maintainers provided thought-provoking and meaningful ideas to advance AI-enabled solutions in the important field of predictive maintenance. It’s exactly the kind of relationship we want to foster across the entire JAIC.”