Hanscom supports innovative NSIN program

  • Published
  • By Jessica Casserly
  • 66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Digital Directorate and 66th Air Base Group personnel here are partnering with the National Security Innovation Network to support the first Hacking for Defense, or H4D, course at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

The H4D program, facilitated by NSIN and supported by BMNT, Inc. and the Common Mission Project, pairs interdisciplinary teams with Department of Defense organizations to rapidly address emerging national security challenges using entrepreneurial methods.

“Teams are instructed in and apply lean startup principles to develop and test potential solutions iteratively,” said Matt Merighi, NSIN’s Northeast Regional director. “It transforms the classroom into a miniature think tank.”

Students in the UMass Lowell H4D pilot class are working on one of two problem sets vetted by NSIN and selected by the class professors. The Hanscom challenge, submitted by Kevin Kelly, technical director for Digital and a three-time H4D problem set sponsor, focuses on finding new ways to leverage artificial reality and virtual reality for first responders.

“There’s all this new technology coming out today and to get it into the hands of the warfighter would be really effective,” he said. “But working with students, I thought it was a better idea to take a problem that a special ops team or an infantry platoon has and translate it into the civilian world. I decided to focus on firefighters, since they deal with similar problems.”

H4D students conduct dozens of interviews with potential end users to help shape the proposed solution they’ll present at the end of the course, said graduate student Brennan Fournier.

“I can read a technology concept and think about all of the possible ways I’d pull this off, but by actually talking to the end user and discovering their true needs we’re better able to put a strong concept together to best help them,” he said.

As part of the extensive interview process, Kelly and Merighi connected the H4D students with 66 ABG Fire Chief Daniel Dillon to give them an Air Force firefighter perspective.

“I think there’s value in programs like this,” Dillon said. “The students’ technology could help out with all kinds of emergency responses, whether it be an active shooter or a fire. Technology like this is definitely the way forward.”

Kelly said Dillon provided the students with valuable insights that gave them a broader perspective.

“Infantry and special ops personnel would have agreed with everything the fire chief said. I took it as validation that this approach of having the students work with firefighters was good and made [the problem set] more tangible,” Kelly said.

Making DOD challenges relatable for students is critical to the success of H4D program.

“Kevin described [the Hanscom problem set] using gaming technology and once he mentioned the VR aspect, it was something I could imagine,” said Gloria Donkor, a first year Ph.D. student in the H4D course.

Donkor and Fournier both expressed interest in possibly moving forward with the early-stage product concept they’ll present at the end of the course.

“We’ve put a lot of work in and I think it would be really cool to see it launched and where it goes,” said Fournier.

NSIN and UMass Lowell plan to continue offering H4D courses at the university.

“The Hacking 4 Defense program is a good example of how UMass Lowell is pushing multidisciplinary learning,” said Ashwin Mehta, an associate teaching professor in the Manning School of Business and one of the H4D professors. “We’re also creating a community with Hanscom Air Force Base and [our other problem set sponsor] Natick (Army) Labs.”

NSIN will accept problem sets for their fall H4D courses soon. DOD members interested in submitting can email Merighi at mmerighi@nsin.us to learn more.

“NSIN works with DOD members at all levels to solve their problems through its network of academic and entrepreneurial innovators,” said Merighi. “Any unit can sponsor an H4D problem.”