Air Force hopes video gamers, YouTubers can protect American satellites

Maj. Gregory Stewart, 22nd Space Operations Squadron mission commander, oversees the Air Force Satellite Control Network antennas from all over the world to ensure they are operating efficiently and providing support to the users at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, Wednesday, April 5, 2017.


By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: November 26, 2018

(Tribune News Service) — Known for being staid and secretive, Air Force Space Command is now looking for help from a crowd best known for “man buns” and YouTube channels.

The command is offering $100,000 in prize money to programming wizards who can use video game technology to replace satellite tracking methods that would be familiar to mission controllers from the Apollo program.

“I’ve been using the term ‘agile,’?” explained Col. Michael Kleppe, who is overseeing the effort for the Peterson Air Force Base command. “It is a new way to look at programs and projects.”

Called the Air Force Visionary Q-Prize Competition, the software challenge is a way for the command to reach into the basements of Silicon Valley and Seattle, where programmers have been building top-end video games for generations. Man buns is a reference to hipster developers who wear their hair pulled up in buns.

Kleppe is convinced that technology can revolutionize how the Air Force is able to think about satellites in orbit.

“What a great way to get out to the nontraditional market that we aren’t used to,” he said.

Now, airmen across Colorado use numbers-based programs to track satellite behavior. It’s not that much different from staring at a slowly changing spreadsheet that must be interpreted into a 3D picture of spacecraft above Earth using brain power alone.

“What we need are 21st and 22nd century tools to put on our operational floors,” Kleppe said. “We decided that best one to start with is visualization.”

Space Command for the past 20 years has pushed for increased “space situational awareness.” That requires understanding everything circling Earth from debris left during the Summer of Love to modern-era anti-satellite missiles possessed by rivals Russia and China.

The video game-style interface would also play to an Air Force strength: youth.

“We have airmen coming in who are playing Nintendo and Xbox,” explained Kleppe.

Kleppe and his colleagues don’t know what the new solution will look like, but they have high expectations. The colonel is hoping for a 3D picture of space that can be moved and manipulated by airmen.

The drive for a new view of space comes as Space Command works to defend satellites from increasing threats.

Kleppe said America’s rivals have seen how American spacecraft give an unprecedented advantage to troops on the ground, and that turns American satellites into the first targets an enemy would seek out in a future war.

The new software would allow Americans to see the threats coming.

“Up to $100,000 in prize money will be distributed as part of this competition, with multiple prizes awarded for each category and a single VQ-Prize to be awarded to the top overall submission,” Space Command said in a news release.

To give software designers somewhere to start, Space Command has issued guidelines and advice. Details on the contest can be found at https://www.innocentive.com/ar/challenge/9934120.

The service is not looking for a crew-cut crowd, saying the competition is planned to “encourage nontraditional industry partners who have limited means to engage with military customers, such as universities, individuals, and small businesses, to find solutions for safe and secure operations in space. No background in space applications is required.”

Kleppe is hopeful that one of the competitors will forever change how the Air Force looks at space, adding that the Air Force needs a fix, fast.

“We really have to keep an eye on our adversaries,” Kleppe said.


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