Air Force Special Operations Command hosts U.S. Air Force multi-classification Hackathon

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  • By Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs

The Department of the Air Force conducted its latest “BRAVO” hackathon March 20 – 24 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, this time partnering with the other defense services and intelligence agencies.

A hackathon is an innovation building conference commonly employed by technology companies where agile teams develop prototypes, working around-the-clock over the course of a week in response to challenges associated with data. Prior BRAVO projects have produced multiple prototypes and inventions influencing major Defense Department programs.

The last two events specifically solved U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force problems at three separate classifications and demonstrated BRAVO events produce operational prototypes at a 10x-100x lower cost than any other known Department of Defense prototyping pathways, “said Chief Digital Transformation Officer for the U.S. Department of the Air Force and hackathon co-organizer, Stuart Wagner. “The primary goal of BRAVO 10 Opana was to confirm this approach scales to all military services and federal agency partners. What we learned was that the mixing effect between diverse problems, concepts and participants increased serendipity and effectiveness, which improved project capabilities and the number of probable transition partners. Current interest suggests greater than 40% of projects will transition in some form, which would significantly outperform our prior transition success rates of 20%-30%.

The event drew approximately 450 participants from all military services, three intelligence agencies, industry and U.S. citizens and produced approximately 35 projects across two site locations. There were multiple Army and Navy led projects, with the remainder constituting projects originating with the Air Force and Space Force. Various projects were deployed to edge compute devices supplied by Project Overmatch for future evaluation.

I don’t know if anyone in the Air Force acknowledges Accelerate Change or Lose more than Air Force Special Operations Command,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew Davidson, Air Force Special Operations Command deputy commander. “We’ve got to come together with team sponsors, find learning opportunities, and take action to ensure we’re ready for the challenges and threats in front of us.”

BRAVO took a unique approach to problem solving as Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and civilians traveled to Hurlburt Field from across the nation to propose projects on behalf of their organizations and form self-organizing teams to produce prototypes within one week.

“The U.S. Navy’s involvement led to solutions that we intend to transition. For example, MK 18 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle program representatives arrived with curated data, a specific use case and a unique set of challenges posed when operating in the undersea domain,” said Alex Zimmer, the MK 18 Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Autonomy & Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Data Dominance Lead. “Teams of Hackers analyzed the use case through the lens of their background in the world of Unmanned Aircraft Systems which led to solutions tackling the problems from a different angle. This kind of conceptual idea sharing excels in an inter-Department of Defense environment."

"The builder's conference approach is a model for rapid, joint innovation. From the Army Special Operations perspective, this was a great learning opportunity that expanded our professional network and demonstrated strong proofs-of-concept in just one very busy week. This tech-focused sprint provided teams access to tools and data not readily found in the Department of Defense. Most importantly, bringing such a diverse group of smart problem-solvers together gave us the opportunity to innovate and collaborate on our hardest technical issues,” said Meridith Fonseca, U.S. Army Special Operations Command Research and Development director.

“It’s a convention of nerds across the Department of Defense,” said Elisha Crow, participant from Kessel Run within Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Digital Directorate. “The hackathon has been more than great networking. It will help with knowledge sharing and next steps going forward.”

“I came to the hackathon to solve our Squadron’s data woes,” said 2nd Lt. Luke Kenworthy, participant from the 4th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. “We came with a hard problem and made significant progress that will be very valuable.”

Now that the event is completed, it is the responsibility of stakeholders within Department of Defense programs and other innovation pathways to evaluate and sponsor prototype projects they see as feasible against their problem sets.

“It’s been fascinating how many young Airmen are showing incredible talent toward problem solving,” said Davidson. “The challenge now for leaders like me is to create pathways for these Airmen to face and overcome the threats ahead of us. We don’t know when the next fight will occur, but we know we have exactly from now until then to get ready.”

In January 2022, the Department of the Air Force ran BRAVO 0, its first department-wide classified innovation hackathon with Air Force weapons system data at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. BRAVO 1 Canary Release grew the effort when in July 2022, the department ran its second hackathon simultaneously at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Patrick Space Force Base, Florida; and Eglin AFB, Florida at three classifications with about 300 hackers.

This recent event – BRAVO 10 Opana - continued counting using the binary number system. The term Opana comes from the Opana Army Radar site, Hawaii which first detected simultaneous bomber aircraft one hour before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. These digital data were ignored, demonstrating the costs of failing to extract signal from data in advance of impending war.

Named from Billy Mitchell’s controversial 1920s Project B battleship bombing trials that creatively disproved the top funding priority of the Secretary of War by demonstrating bombers sink battleships, BRAVO hackathons are designed to empower government, academia, industry and citizens to rapidly develop capabilities from existent DoD data and weapons systems.

“At this point, the BRAVO hackathon series has pushed the needle by proving three times we can prototype joint DoD capabilities in one week that transition.” Wagner said. “Our next events - if funded - will break the gauge by rapidly building and productionalizing capability inside various theatres to be used in the event of war.”

The Department of the Air Force Hackathon series is sponsored by the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Project Morpheus, Air Force Special Operations Command, Project Overmatch, the Air Force Office of the Chief Information Officer, Secretary of the Air Force Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Special Programs, Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Advana program, the Air Force Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, Air Force Global Strike Command, and the Stitches Warfighter Application Team. Sponsoring projects and weapons data came from Project ARC, the Air Force Research Lab, Air Operation Centers, Shadow Operations Center-Nellis, the 90th Cyber Operations Squadron, intelligence agencies, the U.S. Army 18th Airborne Corps, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Naval Special Warfare, and Air Force Special Operations Command among many other organizations.