Artificial Intelligence

Coding to Win – NSWCDD Hosts inaugural Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Innovation Challenge at Dahlgren

The excitement, innovation and possibilities ignited as 10 university teams gathered at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), Dahlgren Campus for the inaugural Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) Innovation Challenge at Dahlgren. The students battled for three days in hope of gaining a spot on the leader board.

Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) welcomed teams from Carnegie Mellon University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Christopher Newport University, Cornell University, Virginia Tech, Tarleton State University, Virginia State University, University of Virginia, William and Mary and University of Mary Washington to compete for a total of $100,000 in cash prizes.

The Joint Cognitive Operational Research Environment (JCORE) team from NSWCDD diligently prepared and developed the challenges for the students to tackle. The three different scenarios involved a multitude of ships and threat counts to challenge the students’ decision making.

“Each day the difficulty of the challenge was ramped up to test the students’ knowledge and critical thinking,” said NSWCDD engineer Brett Burcher. “The problems tasked to the students simulate a real issue that Sailors would be trying to solve today, which is something they may not be able to do in their classrooms.”

The three-day event focused on teaching, challenging and developing Al/ML algorithms for the automated scheduling and coordination of simulated directed energy, hypervelocity projectiles and other advanced weapon systems. The challenge presented opportunities for the universities to unite and ignite their creativity.

The prize challenge enabled the validation of new and advanced Al/ML algorithms through modeling, simulation and wargaming. It expanded the students’ knowledge in Al/ML algorithm design and development, engagement coordination, and hard and soft kill weapon integration.

The teams also had the opportunity to develop algorithms with JCORE, the Navy’s in-house “serious” video game. This software provided a medium-fidelity simulation of fleet-level exercises and bridges the gap between tabletop wargaming and high-fidelity modeling and simulation to provide a repeatable, faster-than-real-time solution.

“The opportunity to bring 10 colleges and universities to partner with us was exactly in line with our expectations,” said NSWCDD Technical Director Dale Sisson, Jr., SES. “To see this group of talented individuals here focused on our mission and our challenges is extremely encouraging for our nation and our Navy.”

This event provided the students with the opportunity to expand their studies while providing the Navy with the needs for automated engagement of weapons to threat pairing in order to effectively protect naval assets and defeat incoming threats. It also provided a great opportunity for NSWCDD to expand their academic engagement. 

“Many of the students approached this artificial intelligence innovation challenge in ways we had not yet explored,” said NSWCDD Chief Technology Officer Jennifer Clift. “While the students had the opportunity to learn from some of the Navy’s finest scientists and engineers, we were also able to learn from them.”  

Day one’s mission focus was survivability – the students were tested to protect their ships during a max raid scenario. On days two and three, the teams had to cope with a depleted missile inventory. As intensity grew, the focus shifted to process of elimination, defense strategies and prioritization of the fleet’s safety.

“It was exhilarating to witness the next generation of data scientists directly contributing to the design of the future of the Navy,” said Dr. George Foster, the Distinguished Engineer for Combat Control.

Virginia Tech’s team came together for the competition naturally. “We kind of grew together, worked together and had a team prior to the competition,” said senior Danielle Reale. “We decided it’s our senior year, let’s make a trip out of the experience and test what we can do!”

The challenge also provided a way for teams to connect and network which created an atmosphere of mutual support between the competitors

“It’s great to connect with other students here,” stated Reale. “We quickly realized we’re still in support of one another because at the end of the day, we still have the same goal of, providing an algorithm that NSWCDD can use.”

Kelsey Shearon, a member from Christopher Newport University said, “It was really fun! I am grateful for the opportunity to compete here, and if I had the chance, I would do it again.”

Carnegie Mellon’s team won first place and $50,000. Virginia Tech placed second with a prize of $30,000 and William and Mary came in third and took home $20,000.

“Although the prize money was intriguing, we were more focused on doing well and the knowledge we could gain. The prize money was just a major bonus,” stated William and Mary student Joseph Lee. “This may sound funny, but this feels like my ideal vacation because you get to actually focus on something you are really passionate about.”

Aside from the prize money awarded, the event led to one student earning an on-the-spot internship offer from NSWCDD. After the completion of onsite interviews and tours, the division anticipates additional offers.

“This innovation prize challenge far exceeded my expectations,” stated Clift. “I was so impressed with the students who participated and their desire to compete and learn. Our future is bright!”    


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