PTN Hackathon inspires Airmen to innovate

February 27, 2019
Jordyn Fetter
Airmen and civilians gathered around a laptop

AUSTIN, Texas- A group of Airmen gather around a laptop screen as it illuminates the mix of curiosity and pride on their faces and one of their peers describes a prototyped technology they developed over the span of the previous 12 hours.

It’s not often they get to approach an entirely new challenge and develop a viable solution in this short of a timeframe.

The Pilot Training Next Hackathon, hosted by AFWERX Austin, brought together ten Air Force personnel to focus on gamification and essential skills training automation on Feb. 12-13.

Hackathons are design-focused events that bring together computer programmers and other subject matter experts relevant to the event’s topic to collaborate and quickly develop prototype programs.

“Typically billed as 24 or 48 hour events, participants clear their schedules in order to focus solely on the hackathon, resulting in intense, deep work that creates results,” said Kyle Palko, AFWERX operations research analyst and hackathon organizer. “The goal of each hackathon is to create a solution to a problem. Concepts are cool and minimal viable products are awesome, but prototypes are the best.”

Over the course of two days, the group learned about PTN, participated in a problem-definition session ran by Defense Innovation Unit, pitched eight ideas and chose three to focus on, and developed prototypes with data obtained during the first iteration of PTN.

“I had never been to a hackathon before this, so it was a first with regards to that kind of event and the pressures, timelines, and difficulties tied to it,” said Logan Gombar, Air Education and Training Command detachment 24 communications and cyber officer in charge. “Seeing how we cleared those hurdles in such a short time gave me hope that the Air Force is capable of adapting to these technologically advanced times.”

The three final prototypes developed were titled Maneuver Classification: A Machine Learning Image Processing Approach, Thunderdome: Gamifying the Mundane, and Predictive Model for Skill Attainment, Retention, and Decay.

The maneuver classification project resulted in a prototyped machine learning model that streams live data from PTN servers, converts it to a usable format, and then grades the simulated aircraft tasks based on how well they adhered to the pilot training syllabus.

Another project prototyped gamification of specific training skill sets to foster friendly competition amongst students. The goal was to drive measurable improvements in the learning and retention of core flying skills by leveraging skill recognition technology and behavioral science research.

The third project was centered around developing a predictive model to determine the probability of a student successfully completing certain aircraft maneuvers which then recommends learning objectives to minimize unnecessary flight hours spent on already proficient competencies.

“We used this hackathon to push a culture that defines success by impact, not just effort or time spent,” said Jeff Gilmore, AFWERX data integration director and hackathon organizer. “This concept helped the participants define questions, scope project pitches, and ultimately deliver functional prototypes. When you’re under a tight deadline, you must accomplish the critical tasks that have the highest return on investment first and jettison work that isn’t value additive."

The hackathon brought together a diverse group of individuals with backgrounds in engineering, biosciences, development and mathematics from organizations like the Air Force Research Laboratory, Defense Innovation Unit and AETC.

The hackathon was a prime example of one of AFWERX’s primary functions: connecting experts across the innovation ecosystem to heighten Air Force capabilities.

“Multidisciplinary environments foster a sense of ingenuity that just is not comparable to groups that share the same background and viewpoints,” said Michelle Sinagra, AETC Detachment 24 aerospace and operational physiologist. “We spend so much time gaining proficiency and expertise in a specialized area that it becomes very easy for some to stagnate and lose that sense of creative fire within. When you surround yourself with diverse backgrounds, it keeps perspectives fresh.”

Each prototyped developed is likely to be integrated with PTN in the future following further development and a more comprehensive testing plan to ensure they deliver as expected.

“Through an event like this, we sparked excitement among Airmen who participated,” Palko said. “They were able to test their skills and directly see how the results of their work impact stakeholders. Our Airmen are eager for challenges--we’re giving an outlet to make ideas reality quickly.”