MIT Cadets work work on the Nightcrawler's control systems.
MIT Cadets work work on the Nightcrawler's control systems. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

It’s not every day Cadets are able to make real contributions in support of the Active-Duty warfighter. In April 2019, however, Col. Ron Corsetti, of the Eastern U.S. Group Director of 75th Innovation Command, presented the Army ROTC program at MIT with a unique opportunity to do just that.

“This type of intersection broadens the learning opportunity of Cadets in the region, advancing their ability to apply better problem-solving skills and understand how to reach to external expert networks when they are lieutenants and captains with troops,” said Corsetti. “The idea is to equip these young officers to evolve the culture in the Army by taking ownership of operational or institutional challenges and apply skills, knowledge and networks to create system level improvements within the Army. The SOCOM program is a great vehicle to pilot this idea.”

The problem statement he provided involved an exploratory analysis of open-source, unstructured, captured enemy material (CEM) data, with the goal of crafting tools that could quickly process large amounts of information and leverage artificial intelligence to identify key words and images that could be actioned upon. Eight MIT ROTC Cadets jumped at the opportunity, and, together with Special Operations Command (SOCOM) operators, Lincoln Lab scientists, and 75thIC technical experts, set out to come up with a solution.

Just 48 hours later, the Cadets had produced tools able to digest the enemy data and rapidly create link diagrams based on call-logs, a dictionary that maps call-records to various metadata graphs, and an algorithm that could parse out key words from documents. At the conclusion of the weekend, all participants briefed their work to the Chief Technology Officer of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) Snehal Antani.

“Great energy at MIT,” Antani said about the event. “They did some really solid work and I’m excited [about the final results]. This event will have achieved more impact in a few days than most places get done in months and years.”

In a closeout debriefing one week later, the MIT Lincoln Labs (MITLL) event organizers, Dr. Raoul Ouedraogo and Dr. Curt Davis presented the final products to SOCOM partners and MITLL Director Dr. Eric Evans.

Cadets from the MIT Hackathon team brief their signal extension prototype to the team at at MIT Lincoln Labs..
Cadets from the MIT Hackathon team brief their signal extension prototype to the team at at MIT Lincoln Labs.. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Tim Van Name, USASOC’s Command Technology Officer said, “The ingenuity of the Cadets in the MIT ROTC program is immeasurably valuable in bringing new technology and novel approaches to operational problems, and provides the Cadets direct exposure to how their intelligence, inquisitive creativity, and abilities can immediately have an impact on readiness, operational effectiveness, and safety of warfighters.”

As the Cadets departed, the event organizers were already planning for the following year’s iteration. The Hackathon was born.

“The way a Hackathon normally works is: you show up with a team, usually with little to no preparation heading into it, and you crank out a prototype over the course of 48 or so hours, sleeping as little (and drinking as much Red Bull) as possible. Then it’s over,” said Cadet Ian Miller, a senior at MIT who has participated in the Hackathon since its beginning in April 2019. “That’s why I think the term ‘Hackathon’ is sort of a misnomer. We did all that typical stuff over the course of a weekend. But at the end of the weekend, we kept working. And we are still working.”

“The thing that makes this work exciting is that it feels important. We are not working on technologies to incrementally improve on some niche, first-world problem. We are working on real problems. There was a sense of urgency that weekend among the Cadets and the operators that was refreshing and inspiring. Our military is exceptional not just because we have the best technology at any given moment, but because we recognize the need to never be satisfied with our current capabilities. We always need to improve. That was my big takeaway from that weekend.”

In September 2019, the MIT ROTC Cadets, now totaling 15, again met with operators and scientists from SOCOM, MIT LL, and 75thIC to tackle a new set of operator-driven problems. Over three days, Cadet teams worked on various aspects of the Nightcrawler, an unmanned ground-vehicle (UGV) designed to clear rooms reconnoiter buildings. The teams were each comprised of four to five Cadets of varying technical background, supported by two to three MITLL/75thIC scientists who provided technical guidance. Each team was also paired with a set of operators with operational knowledge of how technologies are employed, in order to provide more practical design guidance.

Results of the second Hackathon once again exceeded expectations with Cadets delivering prototypes that provided the Nightcrawler with greater situational awareness, signal transmission range, control, and even the ability to breach doors. As the Hackathon completed its second iteration, its value became even more apparent to all involved.

Screen capture of the situational awareness software developed by cadets.
Screen capture of the situational awareness software developed by cadets. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

“The Hackathon was one of those experiences that was a win-win for everyone involved,” said 2nd Lt. Rishi Shah, who was the Cadet Hackathon lead at the time. “As Cadets, we got unparalleled exposure to the SOF community and got to work on practical problems, while SOCOM and Lincoln Labs received some creative prototypes for the warfighter challenges they are tackling. Because SOCOM and Lincoln Labs were so generous with their time, each of us learned an incredible amount about technology development and implementation in a military context, which was one of the best learning experiences of my time in ROTC.”

The MIT Hackathon team was subsequently invited to Fort Bragg to participate in a follow-up event in January 2020, where the teams tested their enhancements to the Nightcrawler and worked on several new problems provided. In between the hours spent iterating on their prototypes, the teams were able to tour SOCOM’s facilities and see firsthand how operators train. The exposure enabled Cadets to go beyond technical questions about the problem sets and instead begin to ask more career- and leadership-oriented questions about the army at large. The Hackathon, originally a technical endeavor, had naturally morphed into an opportunity for professional development and mentorship. MIT’s ROTC cadre took note, too.

“It really forced us to try to understand what accession pipelines and branch specific opportunities existed in the Army to cultivate this specialized talent,” said Lt. Col. David Stalker, the MIT ROTC Professor of Military Science. “The Hackathon was not originally designed to inform the career decisions of our Cadets, but it really has, and we’ve wholly embraced that. This program gave the rising seniors who participated in it a solid first-look at what their army career could look like, and it did it prior to the Army’s new Talent Based Branching strategy that launched in 2020.”

The successes of the Fall Hackathon and January trip spurred the development of a USACC/SOCOM CTLT summer internship to continue tackling innovation challenges within the SOCOM community. In the Summer of 2020, MIT was able to send four Cadets and the recently commissioned Shah to work on select projects in support of high-priority national programs.

Cadet Michael Hiebert, an MIT senior who took over as the Cadet Hackathon lead from then-Cadet Shah in January 2020, was among those selected to go.

“It really opened my eyes to the world of innovation in defense,” he said about his experience during the SOCOM internship. “The problems they’re trying to solve are so numerous and complex, but that just means there’s a lot of opportunity to be creative in how you approach them. There’s so much change happening in the tech world nowadays, that it’s easy to get lost in the brilliance of it all, especially at a place like MIT. I came into the Hackathon with that perspective that there’s a technical solution to every problem if you’re clever enough. My time working on these problems and especially at Fort Bragg has shown me that that’s only partly true: there’s another level to it.

"The tech matters, but how it interfaces with the human Soldiers that will depend on it matters even more. It’s an understanding that these solutions need to be built with the end-user in mind, and tested extensively in the kinds of environments that they’re going to work in. Functioning in a workshop and functioning on a battlefield are two separate things. It seems obvious but so many solutions miss it. I think coming to that realization is a lot of what the Hackathon is about."

Cadets brief their prototype to the team during the Fall 2020 Hackathon.
Cadets brief their prototype to the team during the Fall 2020 Hackathon. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

Even in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program entered into its third academic year in August 2020. Motivated by the Fort Bragg trip and the summer internship opportunities, the MIT ROTC Hackathon Team now sponsored 30 Cadets, roughly one-third of the entire ROTC program. This Academic year 2020-2021 presented Cadets with projects across two key areas: improving SOCOM operators’ ability to synthesize large amounts of information about their surroundings in operational environments and increasing the capabilities of SOCOM’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) to partner with humans on missions. This year’s iteration included a new cohort of fresh faces and was packed with technical development and professional mentorship opportunities.

Cadet Chloe Brown, an MIT junior, was a team lead for one of the projects this semester.

“I wasn’t sure about the Hackathon when I first heard of it. It was way out of my comfort zone and I didn’t think my skills really aligned with it,” she said about her feelings going into the weekend. “The Hackathon itself ended up way exceeding my expectations. It was amazing. We met some incredible people and I felt like I was creating a product that someone could actually use. I felt like I was helping.”

Cadet Jack Cogbill, a freshman at Harvard, came to the Hackathon as one of his first real experiences with ROTC.

“It was the highlight of my first semester in ROTC and I cannot thank our SOCOM mentors enough. I gained practical skills in rapid prototyping and design along with valuable face-time with some of the Army’s most elite, experienced, and motivated Soldiers and civilian partners,” he said.

The success of this third iteration has prompted SOCOM to launch a similar initiative across all of U.S. Army Cadet Command. This SOCOM Cadet Innovation Challenge, called "SOCOM Ignite" will be a yearlong program that begins with an MITLL/SOCOM project kick-off on December 4, 2020. Projects will be broadcasted on an MITLL hosted website for Cadets across all of USACC to review and provide potential solutions.

Much like MIT’s current Hackathon, the Cadet-led teams will provide deliverables throughout the year to a committee of MITLL, 75thIC, and SOCOM advisors. Projects that have future potential will be selected and funded by MITLL/SOCOM with specific guidance on the continuation of project. There will be a second round of review boards with a second wave of funding to develop initial prototypes for eventual transition to LL for development and fielding of the project. Throughout SOCOM Ignite, Cadets will have opportunities to interview/compete for CTLT and internship opportunities in the SOCOM Community.

As the MIT ROTC team looks back at where this Hackathon started in 2019, nobody anticipated it would yield this many benefits. A working exposure to how the Army leverages talent to drive innovation provides Cadets a framework to a promising and exciting future in the Army. The numerous mentors from SOCOM, Lincoln Labs, and 75th Innovation Command have provided the Cadets routine advisement on pathways and gates to accomplish their professional goals within the Army, whether it be Active Duty, Reserve, or National Guard. All of this feeds into the Army’s retention of some of the most talented Cadets with specialized skill sets such as cloud computing, machine learning, quantum computing, and bio-medical engineering. It is this type of talent management that will assist in the Army with current challenges, and those that will emerge as it continues to modernize.

“The 75thIC is applying technical and professional expertise from Soldiers’ civil sector lives as well as their extended expert networks to improve the quality and velocity of Army modernization decision-making,” said Corsetti. “Working with Cadets now enhances their education, builds their professional networks, and equips them to be better problem-solvers when they are lieutenants and captains.”

“My involvement with this program has changed the way I view the Army and myself within it. I’ve gained new skills and been exposed to so many new ideas, both technical and non-technical,” said Cadet Isabella McKinney (Tufts ’23), who will be leading MIT’s Hackathon in 2021. “I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to a mission that will directly impact the well-being and safety of Soldiers, and I am incredibly excited about the way ahead. It’s going to be amazing.”