A-Hack-of-the-Drones: Hackathon and Follow On Contract
In September 2018, I took advantage of a last minute opportunity to join a Texas A&M Cybersecurity team competing in the MD5 and Army Futures Command sponsored hackathon, A-Hack-of-the-Drones. The goal of this competition was to create solutions for threats from small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) by focusing on identification, nullification, cyber effects, or destruction. Our team developed a cyber platform over the weekend that allowed us to develop different modules that took advantage of vulnerabilities in the drone software. Over the weekend, we created modules that decrypted files, found hidden passwords, hacked into the drone's WiFi, and tapped into live video feed from the drone. After a science-fair style judging round where we pitched our idea to judges in about 3 minutes, we were selected as one of 5 finalist teams. We presented our solution in a longer presentation to a larger crowd, and were chosen as one of three winning teams.
My biggest contribution during the hackathon itself was presenting our solution. My other teammates were highly skilled and experienced with hackathons of this kind, and although I did my best to contribute code, I did not have enough time to learn a new coding language over the weekend. I did some work on an ARP-poisoning attack, and I developed a method to visualize the data that showed the last recorded GPS logs from the drone. Despite the fact that I did not contribute as much code to the repository over that weekend, I feel that my role in presenting our solution was valuable. I was able to take the technical details and explain them in a way that made sense to a general audience, and made the idea as exciting and viable as possible. You can see the final presentation as the first in the video here. As an added bonus, one of the other two teams was another group from Texas A&M! This team was mostly comprised of graduate aerospace engineering students, who worked on a machine learning vision algorithm to detect and classify different drones and other flying objects.
You can also see a news report on the event here.
Our prize included a $15,000 contract from MD5 to continue working on our project. Many of my teammates decided that because of other school or work commitments, they would be unable to take part in the follow-on work. However, I decided to stick with the team even though I felt that my skills paled in comparison. I knew that it would be a valuable experience, not only for the technical skills I would be exposed to, but also for the introduction to the start-up world and the potential to turn this idea into a real product or company.
When I joined this joined this team, I expected it to be a weekend long experience where I would learn some new skills and make new contacts. This project has turned into so much more and I am so grateful. I've now had the opportunity to learn more python programming, present to my power research group about the experience and the opportunity of combining cybersecurity with power, and present to a four-star general about our team's ideas and vision for the future.
I am very grateful to my teammates for everything they have taught me, and especially to Dr. Ragsdale for his mentorship and support of our team during the hackathon and beyond. I am excited to see where this project goes next.