news | 6 June 2024

Unmanned Aerial System Automated Visual Guidance Hackathon Held at NATO-Ukraine Defence Innovators Forum in Poland

Programmers, operators, and computer vision engineers from Ukraine and NATO countries participate in a Automated Visual Guidance Hackathon at the AGH University of Krakow, as part of the NATO-Ukraine Defence Innovators Forum in Kraków, Poland, June 4-6, 2024. Flight events and performance focused on improving the capability of low-cost, light-weight drone systems to navigate to an object of interest. (DOD photo by Devon Bistarkey)

Hackers developed solutions overnight to real Ukrainian battlefield challenges 

KRAKOW (June 6, 2024) – As part of the NATO-Ukraine Defence Innovators Forum,  the Defense Innovation Unit hosted a 48-hour hackathon to create functional solutions to a critical battlefield unmanned aerial system (UAS) problem. The event theme focused on how to provide automated last mile guidance  for optimal navigation without human intervention.  As the Hackathon sponsor, DIU’s goal was to accelerate solutions to the warfighter at the speed of relevance. 

“This event fostered important, international, inter-organizational cooperation in support of Ukraine,” said U.S. Marine CorpsColonel Glenn McCartan, DIU’s U.S. European Command lead. “Our goal is to get to the point where we can deliver solutions within hours and days instead of months and years. With this hackathon, we saw that when  the alliance  aligns behind a common cause and shares resources and knowledge, it can deliver solutions at speed and with impact.”

At the end of the engineering and design sprint, 13 teams vying for the $100,000 USD prize were judged against a series of open-standard criteria for their value, merits, and innovation. The winning team was Sensorama Lab/KEF Robotics, a collaboration between Ukrainian and Norwegian developers. They were awarded $50,000 USD for their solution,  which provides an autonomous capability to visually identify objects of interest, adhering to a flight path relative to that object of interest, with limited computational resources, and a platform appropriate for attritable missions. 

Sensorama Lab/KEF Robotics was not the only team that provided valuable UAS solutions; codequest won $15,000 and  AI Autonomix won $10,000. Another five teams won superlative prizes and $5,000 USD each  for their technologies:

  • Judge’s Choice - Visual Identification: AGH University Student Team

  • Judge’s Choice - Visual Navigation: NordaDynamics

  • Judge’s Choice - Overall Potential:

  • Judge’s Choice - Overall Potential: GCH Technologies

  • Judge’s Choice - International Cooperation: Team Blackjack (a multi-organization, multi-nation group  from Ukraine, Poland, US participants)

In addition to prize funding, select top teams also received non-monetary prizes that aim to help them scale their solutions.

While the introduction of small unmanned aerial systems has changed the modern battlefield, systems are limited by radio link line-of-sight, are susceptible to adversarial countermeasures  such as electromagnetic interference, and require a level of expertise to operate. Improving UAS autonomous capabilities has the potential to mitigate existing shortfalls through removing dependency on a radio control link and by shifting the operator to a supervisory and decision-making "on the loop" role, instead of a skill-based and technically intensive "in the loop" role. 

The problem set for the Automated Visual Guidance Hackathon was grounded in operational battlefield needs, focused on terminal guidance, minimizing the need for operator interaction, and maintaining an operationally appropriate economic platform cost.

“DIU was honored to work with our international partners to bring the talents of leading technologists, businesspeople, policy experts, government officials, and academics to bear on some of the most pressing challenges facing Ukraine,” said DIU Deputy Director for Commercial Operations, Liz McNally, who kicked-off the Hackathon in Krakow. “This event is another lever the DoD can use to deliver technologies to support Ukraine in its fight for sovereignty and freedom.”

Convening an impressive list of participants from eight countries – including Canada, Ukraine, Netherlands , Norway, Poland, United Kingdom, Estonia, and the United States –  the hackathon fostered important collaboration between international businesses, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and international governments. 

Judging was conducted by the Defense Innovation Unit, and affiliates. DIU’s National Security Innovation Network sponsored the Hackathon, and was supported by the non-profit Dronecode, the Polish Ministry of National Defense and AGH University of Krakow.

The NATO-Ukraine Defence Innovators Forum, co-hosted by DIU, concluded its three-day event designed to bring together stakeholders from across the world's innovation ecosystems to address some of the most pressing issues involving dual-use technology today.

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