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NEWS | Jan. 13, 2022

NSWC Crane places in HACKtheMACHINE Unmanned, leverages prize challenge to develop cybersecurity workforce pipeline

By Sarah K. Miller, NSWC Crane Corporate Communications

Technically diverse teams from Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division (NSWC Crane) competed and placed third and fifth in a virtual technology prize challenge. NSWC Crane competed against teams across the country in HACKtheMACHINE from The Dimension Mill coworking and entrepreneurship center in Bloomington, Indiana on November 16-19.  

Dr. Nate Husted, a Chief Scientist for Cyber and Electromagnetic Technologies at NSWC Crane, participated on the third-place team.

“Our success is certainly something that wouldn’t have been possible without the junior team members,” says Dr. Husted. “Many of those folks brought us the win with their excitement and enthusiasm. The students put most of the points on the board—they were scrappy, passionate about the topic, and have great skills.”

HACKtheMACHINE is a technology prize challenge that focuses on discovery and teambuilding between the U.S. Navy, industry, and academia to create solutions and capabilities for the Fleet. Sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), this challenge offered three tracks for teams to compete—each track focused on different technology: Hack the Pilot (Cyber), Detective Bot (AI/ML & Data Science), and Top Model (MBSE).

NSWC Crane had twenty people on two teams competing, including team members ranging from Chief Scientists to college students. Employees who participated represented Crane’s three mission areas as well as its Information Technology Department. The team that placed third competed in the cybersecurity track, Hack the Pilot.

Dr. Austin Roach, a scientist at NSWC Crane, has participated in HACKtheMACHINE events since NSWC Crane started participating in 2018. Dr. Roach says that the first year they didn’t know what to expect from the challenge.

“We’ve learned that by increasing the technical diversity of the teams, we are well prepared to tackle the challenge,” says Dr. Roach. “People bring different backgrounds and expertise, like in hardware and software security, so even though we encounter new systems we can come together, be productive, and be successful.”

Dr. Husted says the success shows NSWC Crane has a workforce with cyber skills.

“This shows Crane has clear cyber domain capabilities,” says Dr. Husted. “People look at the news and they see other organizations relating to cyber security—they may not think ‘Crane.’ It’s not just about compliance-checking. We have great cyber capability and talent and the skillset used here is the skillset needed in the future to perform cyber-related test and evaluation. Crane is ready to provide future cyber needs for the Navy.”

For this Unmanned challenge, NSWC Crane used Naval Innovative Science & Engineering (NISE) 219 funding to support participation. Nicholas Amadio, an Electronics Engineer at NSWC Crane, organized the NISE 219 funding and was the Principal Investigator (PI) for the NSWC Crane teams to compete in HACKtheMACHINE. Amadio says this event provided team members with valuable perspective they can bring to their efforts supporting the warfighter.

“Cybersecurity touches all technical areas and it was valuable for participants to get their hands on something they are able to ‘hack,’” says Amadio. “An adversary is doing that at all times. This event helps people understand that it is important to follow and execute cybersecurity processes.”

The National Defense Strategy states the importance of cyberspace as a warfighting domain, stating investments are critical for “cyber defense, resilience, and the continued integration of cyber capabilities into the full spectrum of military operations.”

Dr. Robert Templeman, a Senior Scientific Technical Manager (SSTM) for NSWC Crane and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Distinguished Engineer for Cybersecurity, participated in the event. Dr. Templeman says the challenge was more realistic and more like real-world challenges—it was also a great fit with NSWC Crane’s technical expertise.

“One track challenge was a bug bounty—they said to find the bugs in the commercial drone system, but were there zero, one, or 100?” says Dr. Templeman. “We were able to dive into the challenge which reflects how we would attack a real-world problem. If we want to secure all the systems we support, our team needs to see different perspectives and ways to do things.”

The challenge tracks covered high-priority technology areas for the Navy. Hack the Pilot was a Maritime Cybersecurity challenge to test a simulated autopilot system for an unmanned vehicle. Detective Bot was a challenge to develop data science, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) tools to sort benign or malicious data. Top Model was a challenge to create model-based definitions of requirements that can be tested against system models in unmanned mission simulations.

Dr. Roach says the structure of the event creates interest in some of the Fleet’s biggest challenges.

The Navy wants secure systems,” says Dr. Roach. “The event is a good way to introduce people to these systems and build communities of interest around them.”

NSWC Crane competed in the first HACKtheMACHINE challenge in Seattle in 2018 and placed fourth in the cyber track in the 2019 event. Amadio says the event is an opportunity to develop the workforce and network with military, academia, and industry.

“Networking and mentoring are tangible outcomes from the event,” says Amadio. “Connecting with military commands is mutually beneficial to share knowledge. The event helps students see that the Navy has interesting problems to solve. Also, the event helps employees who may not always see the end results of their day jobs designing for cybersecurity and securing systems.”

Dr. Templeman says the event provided teams several opportunities.

“The greatest benefit is workforce and professional development,” says Dr. Templeman. “A lot of training is not very engaging; there’s no future application of knowledge. The training here is immersive and powerful. Every single person learned something.”

Dr. Templeman adds the event is great at cultivating an innovative workforce.

“Participating also has a positive benefit on our culture,” says Dr. Templeman. “It was a good and fun way to bust out of our comfort zones, work with others through mentoring, establish professional relationships, and extremely rewarding for the teams. Removing barriers and giving people access to these opportunities are important; we have good people who we need to let them do these sorts of things.”

Dr. Husted says more events like HACKtheMACHINE are a great way to engage the workforce and external organizations.

“I’d love to see the Navy create more activities like this—you have an SSTM sitting in the same room as chief engineers and junior employees…all collaborating, communicating, and building a community all in one place,” says Dr. Husted. “It’s a way to learn and grow in ways you otherwise might not be able to.”

About NSWC Crane

NSWC Crane is a naval laboratory and a field activity of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) with mission areas in Expeditionary Warfare, Strategic Missions and Electronic Warfare. The warfare center is responsible for multi-domain, multi- spectral, full life cycle support of technologies and systems enhancing capability to today's Warfighter.

Join Our Team! NAVSEA employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce - from students and entry level employees to experienced professionals and individuals with disabilities. We support today's sophisticated Navy and Marine Corps ships, aircraft, weapon systems and computer systems. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts to ensure the U.S. Navy can protect and defend America. Please connect with NSWC Crane Recruiting at this site - or email us at