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AFRL engineer earns first place in COVID-19 Virtual Hackathon

This graphic represents an Agent-Based Model (ABM) which provides a framework to understand the behavior of individuals in an environment.The goal of this model is to quantify individual worker exposure and infection locations for various office layouts to mitigate exposure. (Courtesy graphic)

This graphic represents an Agent-Based Model (ABM) which provides a framework to understand the behavior of individuals in an environment.The goal of this model is to quantify individual worker exposure and infection locations for various office layouts to mitigate exposure. (Courtesy graphic)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio  An Air Force Research Laboratory Aerospace Systems Directorate employee recently earned joint first place in the COVID-19 Virtual Hackathon hosted by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – the science program inside UK national security.

Leslie Flocken, an aerospace engineer and participant in the Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program, led the virus modelling effort to evaluate workplace layouts and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Royal Society’s Rapid Assistance in Modelling the Pandemic is conducting a peer review of the work to evaluate further maturation of the concept.

“COVID-19 is something that everyone is dealing with,” said Flocken. “Coming up with a solution to help us overcome it and work in this new environment is really interesting and motivating.”

Flocken worked with Dstl researchers Harnick Khera and Matthew Turner to develop the tool which models the behavior of individuals in an office environment to calculate a relative exposure score. This tool then generates a metamodel to allow rapid determination of workplace layout scores. The team’s design also has a graphical user interface to facilitate workplace layout input and output visualization and ultimately provide suggestions for lowering the risk of exposure.

“I used agent-based modelling which is what I had done in graduate school,” said Flocken. “Basically, in a simulation you can watch individuals move around in the workplace and interact with each other. At certain points, people come in close contact with each other, so they have an increased chance of exposure to the virus. This model records that exposure rate for every individual in the simulation and that data is then fed into a metamodel providing instantaneous feedback. You can move desks around or rearrange meeting areas to determine if exposure will be decreased or increased.”

This hackathon involved working as a team remotely, which presented unique challenges. Teams of researchers ranged from two to six individuals who worked diligently to develop quick-turn tools to improve work environments in an unprecedented time.

“The hackathon is an online, creative problem-solving game aimed at generating new approaches and solutions to protect key workers from COVID-19,” said John Carney, the knowledge management lead with the Dstl. “In addition to the useful technical output, the game was a very welcome boost to morale, enabling staff to work together from a home environment.”

“The U.K. and the U.S. have a really close research relationship,” said Flocken. “This is the first time I’ve really been able to work closely with one of our allies. Bringing together different points of view and perspectives has really resulted in a better end product.”

Flocken hopes that the design tool can be used to help organizations throughout the country prepare for a new normal.

“The goal output would be to have something like this tool available on a government website,” said Flocken. “It can not only be used for making small changes to reduce exposure in an office environment, but it can be used in schools or restaurants, as well.”

Flocken’s work highlights AFRL’s dedication to creating innovative tools for the warfighter to succeed in rapidly changing environments.