The Navy is taking software development, particularly with regard to maritime cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and development operations, out to sea.

The Naval Sea Systems Command last month hosted a HACKtheMACHINE event, in which more than 500 hackers spent a weekend taking on digital security problems across three tracks. The competition, based in Seattle, underscored how 21st century technologies are changing an equation for dominance at sea that has lasted for ages.

“Until this century, a country’s sea power depended on its industrial capacity. The nation with the greatest number and most technologically advanced ships controlled the sea and everything that moved over and under it,” Rear Adm. Lorin Selby, the Navy’s chief engineer, said in a release. “Now, decision-making is driven by digital systems.”

Selby said HACKtheMACHINE is part of a plan to accelerate “a digital engineering journey to bring the very fastest software development practices from America’s most talented digital developers and then synchronize the delivery of those capabilities to continually upgrade our capabilities…”

The event’s three tracks were framed by challenges the Navy faces around the globe. The Maritime Capture the Flag featured radio frequency hacking to spoof navigation systems such as the Automatic Identification System (AIS), GPS, and bridge-to-bridge radio. It also is used to help define the design requirements of programmable logic controllers (PLCs), which interface with a ship’s physical systems. PLCs are used in a wide array of industrial systems, such as power grids, industrial plants, cars, and planes, and have proved to be vulnerable to cyber attacks.

The Data Science and the Seven Seas tracks addressed safer navigation, looking to develop artificial intelligence algorithms that use maritime data such as satellite tracking and electronic nautical charts to build collision prevention systems, particularly with regard to human-operated ships and the Navy’s growing fleet of autonomous vessels.

The third track, Hack for the Oceans, brought agile software development on board. Under a scenario of responding to an event like Hurricane Katrina, the exercise emulated what a first responder DevOps team could accomplish on the spot using the Navy’s new Agile Core Services, which is part of the Consolidated Afloat Networking and Enterprise Services (CANES) shipboard tactical network.

Seafaring operations present challenges to digital communications that don’t exist on land or in the air, because of distances from land-based communications systems and the interference water causes with radio communications, which is compounded significantly below the surface.

The Pentagon’s chief research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has explored the possibilities of an underwater Internet that would allow submerged systems (manned or unmanned) to work in concert as they do above the surface, while also being able to communicate with air and ground vessels. DARPA also is trying to develop a system of long-range acoustic sound sources placed around the ocean that could act as a GPS-like systems for underwater vessels. The Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation (POSYDON) program is intended, for now, to work with underwater drones on sub-hunting and other missions.

The Navy said HACKtheMACHINE is part of Selby’s broader initiative to develop a maritime ecosystem that will allow new innovations to be deployed at sea more quickly than they are now.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.