From "The Game of Drones" to Generation AI Nexus

October 2018
Dr. Michael Balazs
Dr. Michael Balazs

While finishing graduate school, Michael Balazs lived on the French/Swiss border for a year, working on the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest and most powerful particle accelerator. For most people, that would have been the highlight of their career. But Michael Balazs is not most people.

Balazs has had quite a few high points while working at MITRE—including having one of his projects featured on an episode of National Geographic’s Breakthrough series, "The Game of Drones." (Balazs appears at 1:24 minutes in this clip.) Along with other content about drones, the episode followed Balazs and his team as they ran MITRE’s Countering Unauthorized UAS Challenge.

Balazs and his team conceived of the idea for the challenge during a conversation. They were just back from an early phase of teaching Special Forces troops to build their own small quadcopters. Each "Nibbler" drone was produced by a 3-D printer and carried a smartphone to serve as computer/camera/GPS/communications.

"Afterwards, we were talking, and someone said, 'OK, we’re feeling pretty smart, but our adversaries are smart, too. What if they turn the same techniques upon us?'

"In a war zone you can shoot these drones down, but it would be too dangerous to do in a city," Balazs says. "And the likelihood of someone using small drones to deliver explosives is all too real." (For example, in August 2018 there was an attempted drone attack upon the president of Venezuela.)

"We came up with the idea of hosting a challenge to help the government determine how well existing technology worked in capturing drones in flight. We went to the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia for two weeks in 104-degree temperature, no cloud cover, and 100 percent humidity—not our best move. We played the bad guys and flew four different scenarios of increasing complexity to replicate what our adversaries are likely to do.

The finalists in the challenge used a variety of techniques, from jammers to flying nets.

"It's clear there's still a lot of work to do," says Balazs. "And because MITRE is a nonprofit with a mission of making our world safer, we have continued working on this problem ourselves. I can’t go into the particulars, but we’ve made a lot of progress toward dealing with the drone technology we see ahead in the next 5-10 years."

Always trying to stay ahead of our adversaries, in 2017, Balazs and his team went to several Marine installations, including those in Kuwait, for what they called the "surge" phase of the "Nibbler" project. The goal was to teach U.S. Marines to build and operate 72 quadcopter drones—within 90 days. Not only was the project a success, but they beat the deadline, finishing in 60 days.

Generation AI Nexus Leads the Way

Balazs explains that there are three typical scenarios where MITRE helps the government and the American people. "One, we tackle current hard problems that no one else can solve. Two, we come in where there’s an important problem, but no profit motive for any commercial company to address it. And three, we look ahead for problems 5, 10, or even 20 years ahead, so we can figure out solutions in advance."

In addition to applying that forward-looking mentality to drone technology, Balazs is also deeply involved in another major challenge—America's workforce of the future. While helping run a hackathon about identifying possible pandemics, he and Jay Crossler, MITRE’s chief engineer for Learning Systems, began talking about a looming problem.

According to McKinsey & Company, there will be a shortfall of up to 250,000 data scientists in the United States. in a decade. This is particularly troubling given how heavily China and other countries are investing in artificial intelligence (AI) expertise. And even more ominously, Russian President Vladimir Putin says that “the nation that leads in AI will be the ruler of the world."

Balazs and Crossler discussed this with MITRE senior vice president Richard Byrne, and developed a plan to bring AI tools and data sets to students across the country. "We believe if we give students secure access to cutting-edge AI tools and data sets they’d normally never see, they won’t just become engaged with the technology. They’ll deliver real solutions."

The concept is called Generation AI Nexus. Balazs is securing partnerships with government, academic institutions, and leading technology companies. "They're very enthusiastic," says Balazs. "Everyone I've talked with gets the value of the idea immediately and they want to be part of it." Balazs says MITRE will begin Generation AI with a series of hackathons in the fall of 2018 to engage with students right away. "Within a year, I see tremendous growth."

He says that in his experience, people at MITRE are driven by the mission. "We do interesting work and for the right reasons. You can have a conversation, come up with an idea that'll make a difference in the world—and then make it a reality. That’s the power of MITRE." 

—by Bill Eidson

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