MITRE Intern Uses Physics to Help Solve Military Challenges

November 2016
Mike DeFranco

Mike DeFranco wanted to work with electronics at Bowdoin College. But the school didn't have an electrical engineering program. So he chose physics, which he says gives him an excellent understanding of the world around him. It also provides a framework for solving complex problems in small steps. Now he's putting both of those concepts to work at MITRE.

He's spending the summer working with tablets and augmented reality technology that can help the U.S. military better plan and execute missions. His work supports the National Security Engineering Center, the federally funded research and development center that addresses complex challenges for defense and intelligence sponsors.

"I wanted to go down the computer science path," DeFranco says. "I really enjoy programming. But I started learning about physics and the way that particles and objects move. It caught my interest, and I had to do it. It felt like the natural course." He's double majoring in physics and computer science at Bowdoin, where he's a junior this fall.

DeFranco first noticed MITRE on a job board on his college's website. His interest deepened after talking with his parents. They're both intellectual property lawyers in the Boston area. "That's where I got introduced to MITRE and the profound work that they do. They told me 'it's a great company—if you can get a job there.'"

DeFranco appreciates the innovation taking place today in areas like Silicon Valley. But he's more interested in working in the national interest. "At MITRE, you're able to help your country. Working on solutions for the government gives your work more significance. You know that it will make an impact."

Taking on Huge Amounts of Real Data

During the first part of the summer, DeFranco worked on a tablet-based mission planning system for military pilots. Aircrew can input data including where the aircraft takes off, intermediate points along the way where it may drop supplies or munitions, and where it needs to return. The application then provides a flight plan that addresses the most efficient route and fuel requirements.

"I specifically worked on inputting vertical obstructions data. I used a database of approximately 22 million points in the world, which includes all known obstacles of interest to aviators," DeFranco said. "At school, I never had access to such a large dataset, or in fact to real-world data. So that was a big challenge for me. I learned a ton about databases, computations of large numbers, and algorithms to handle them."

DeFranco's background with mathematics was important. But physics also proved helpful when he encountered problems during this work. Physics often helped him break those challenges down into smaller steps with incremental goals, he says.

Physics and Augmented Reality

DeFranco recently shifted his focus to an augmented reality solution that enables U.S. military officials to use Microsoft's wearable HoloLens to visualize realistic battlefield scenarios. He's excited to be among the first to work with the system. Because MITRE doesn't compete with industry, our researchers are often given early opportunities to work with cutting-edge technology that might benefit our sponsors.

"I think that being able to see objects like an incoming missile from a first-person perspective is going to be really cool," DeFranco says. "I think I'll be able to use physics in this project even more, as I'm going to plot trajectories for a variety of weapons systems and project impact points, and estimate the damage when they hit their targets. That's going to be a cool project."

Real World Mentoring

While DeFranco’s classroom education helps him to address real world challenges at MITRE, his coursework is now complemented with mentoring from MITRE's staff.

"I've learned so much from the mission planning guys," he says. "We eat lunch together all the time. Being able to talk and work with people who have such a depth of knowledge is really great for my education.

"It's really an invaluable resource that you can't get when working with your peers at school."

—by Jeremy D. Singer

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