Berkeley X-Force Fellows Team Up with Military Sponsors to Solve Real-World Problems

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

Berkeley X-Force Fellows Team Up with Military Sponsors to Solve Real-World Problems
A group of people, both men and women, are gathered outdoors, likely on a military base. They are dressed in military fatigues and tactical gear, including helmets and vests. One man in uniform is standing and appears to be instructing or briefing the group.
The X-Force Fellowship gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to tackle real-world national security issues in DoD agencies. (Photo courtesy of NSIN)

By Sam Goldman

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

“This is among hundreds of other tasks and things we have to do to get everything ready,” said TSgt. Darin Pugh, Ellsworth’s maintenance training section superintendent, who oversees the process with MSgt. Samantha Rohrenbach, the base’s education and training manager.

The hefty time commitment “prevented us from being able to extrapolate useful things out of the data and come up with solutions because we were so focused on just getting the data into something that was presentable,” said Rohrenbach.

To solve their problem, Pugh and Rohrenbach applied to participate in the X-Force Fellowship program, which pairs the technical and entrepreneurial skills of students with Department of Defense (DoD) organizations, to address real-world military problems. For example, rather than ask a group of college kids for a shiny, all-or-nothing “Corvette-of-a-solution,” thought Pugh, “let’s have them build us a skateboard.” Because of his experiences with these types of arrangements in the past, he had seen contractor solutions sometimes fizzle out when the teams adopting the solutions couldn’t figure out how to use them.

In June, Rohrenbach and Pugh laid out their operational problem to three X-Force Fellows, including Lisa Huang, who had just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in cognitive science and a minor in data science.

Using only basic Microsoft Excel functions, the students automated the base’s laborious process, which saved the airmen significant time. The Ellsworth training team has implemented their solution into its routine, and other Air Force bases have expressed interest in implementing the solution as well.

“We asked for a skateboard and they gave us a really awesome, deluxe scooter,” expressed Pugh.

“It’s [the fellowship] really cool and rewarding,” said Huang, “because they [the airmen] can’t stop saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve saved us so much time. We’re already done. You’ve cut us back, like, a week.’”

Sharing UC Berkeley insights and innovation with the military

The X-Force Fellowship is an initiative of the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which is a program office under the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. NSIN connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. This summer’s 11-week, virtual program comprised 277 fellows from 36 universities across the U.S.

At 16 fellows, UC Berkeley had one of the largest cohorts from any individual school this year. Some of their projects included building out data-literacy products with the Naval Air Force, creating an algorithm that categorizes and tracks physical changes at commercial seaports with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and helping the Army Research Laboratory-West modernize tech and bring it to the market. “By the end [of the fellowship], some project sponsors would have hired their fellows on the spot if they could,” said Pamela Sharma, NSIN X-Force program manager.

“They didn’t just meet expectations, they blew past them,” explained Sharma. “What’s always really exciting to hear and really exciting to see is that people are coming in and coming up with solutions that are more innovative or more complex than people thought possible, and in such a short period of time.”

‘It could impact the entire Department of the Air Force’

Huang admitted to feeling a little intimidated and overwhelmed when the program let her know she had been accepted and that her project would involve data analysis and data visualization. She wondered if her limited experience from her data-science classes would be enough. Moreover, she was busy teaching at Girls Who Code.

After hearing about other, buzzier projects, Huang and her two teammates — from the University of Texas, San Antonio and George Mason University — weren’t exactly thrilled. “We were like, ‘Oh. Excel program,’” Huang said. “But we didn’t expect the results to have such a drastic effect on the Air Force.”

Huang spent the beginning of summer mastering the ins and outs of Excel, including power query and pivot tables, and her team exemplified true service and went to work on a solution. None had much experience with Excel — “which was amazing,” Pugh noted in hindsight. Huang and her team met virtually with Pugh and Rohrenbach twice a week, usually for an hour, corresponded over email, and sometimes met one-on-one. During their time together, they’d revise models of the solution, test data, and even found ways to expand the scope of the project.

Huang and her team called their solution “Tool Assisted Analytics Process,” and it automated Ellsworth’s training-data analysis by using only Excel’s pivot tables and power queries. Not only did they hand off to their project sponsors the slicers and graphs, but also a user manual and documentation that covered how they developed the process. “It’s not what we thought we wanted before the project,” said Rohrenbach, but in the end, it was “exactly what we needed it to be.”

When it came time for Huang and her team to demo their project to other X-Force teams and DoD agencies, Tool Assisted Analytics Process was 100 percent successful. “The ownership they had toward the end, it was kind of awe-inspiring to me,” said Pugh. In addition, their solution caught the eye of other DoD organizations. The team’s solution has been shared with Air Force Global Strike Command and all the Maintenance Groups in the Command, which account for all bomber and missile bases in the U.S.

Their solution wasn’t the flashy, complicated solution Pugh had seen flop before. “They kept it simple,” he said. “Any DoD computer has Excel on it.” Aside from paying their fellows, the Tool Assisted Analytics Process costs “zero money to implement, maintain, or upgrade.”

“After only working on something for 11 weeks, that it could impact the entire Department of the Air Force — that’s incredible,” Sharma said. “That’s phenomenal — something to be really proud of.”

‘Something no one has ever done before’

Huang wasn’t the only UC Berkeley student to change the way the DoD solves problems this summer. Edison Guanuna is an electrical engineering and computer science major who saw the X-Force Fellowship program in one of Berkeley Engineering’s newsletters. “I thought, ‘That’s a super-cool name, so I’ll check it out.’” He took 30 minutes to apply, not expecting to get in.

He was accepted and teamed with Jaylan Pierce from San Diego State University. They were paired with a couple of innovative professors including Rob Semmens, a systems engineering researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and Michael “Misha” Novitzky, a robotics researcher at West Point.

Together, they spent the summer exploring robot behavior, which comes in two forms: hard-coded behavior, where the robot’s actions in any situation are dictated precisely by its pre-written code, and machine-learned (or reinforcement-learned) behavior, where the robot begins to make its own predictions for how to act based on its previous experiences.

Guanuna tested these two approaches by simulating robots playing aquatic capture the flag, which is a game of defending one’s own territory and flag while remaining undetected and trying to capture their opponent’s flag. The game had been played before by Novitzky, who had led a project at MIT called Aquaticus, where two teams, both composed of humans and robots, would face off in Boston’s Charles River. But coordinating humans’ and robots’ behavior is difficult. Just telling a robot, say, to snatch a flag means it has to hear the command and translate it into a series of actions: figure out where it has to swim, then orient itself in that direction, scan for the flag, go to it, snatch it up.

Teaching a robot commands is of keen interest to the military.

“The fewer people we can put in harm’s way because the robot can do the job, the better,” said Semmens.

Guanuna’s primary focus was to develop machine-learning defensive behavior for the robots — “which no one had done before,” he noted. After studying up on Aquaticus, reading through documentation, and performing research, Guanuna hand-coded robot behaviors and created machine-learning algorithms to facilitate more robot behaviors.

The results came as a surprise. “In the defense, the hand-coded behaviors are better than the reinforcement-learning behaviors,” said Semmens. “But in the offense, it’s the opposite.”

Guanuna and Pierce had “proved very plainly that machine learning and AI are not the solution for every problem that’s out there,” he added. “So I think it was a pretty great 10 weeks with them. Even though it started off as a summer internship, I fully expect them to get publications out of this. They deserve it.”

Berkeley undergrads and graduate students interested in making their own tangible impact on practical national-security problems can get started now: Applications for the full-time, paid Summer 2022 X-Force Fellowship open October 18 and close December 17.

A New ‘Pipeline for Social Innovation’: HealthTech CoLab opens in Blum Hall

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

A New ‘Pipeline for Social Innovation’: HealthTech CoLab opens in Blum Hall
Several people, all wearing face masks, are gathered around a table in a bright, well-lit room with large windows. On the table, there is medical equipment, including a device with tubes and a screen displaying "RespiraWorks."
RespiraWorks, which produces ventilators and respirators for low-resource settings, demos one of their devices at the CoLab opening. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

By Sam Goldman

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

Housed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the HealthTech CoLab will be unique among the many accelerators and incubators at Berkeley and around the Bay Area. While those programs have launched Berkeley students’ and alumni’s ideas — from smart power grids to new forms of plant-based meat — into the laps of VC firms and toward adoption, less profitable innovations are often left without a pipeline to viability — including many tech innovations focused on improving lives in low-resource regions.

A speaker standing behind a white podium, is addressing a seated audience in a bright, modern indoor space with large windows. The audience is seated in rows and includes men and women, many wearing face masks.
Prof. Dan Fletcher welcomes guests to the HealthTech CoLab’s grand opening on Sept. 23. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

“That’s certainly the case with many global health technologies that are being developed,” said Dan Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering and the Blum Center’s associate director of research. “They’re not something that a VC is looking to fund right now. How do we support those projects that have the potential to really transform lives but aren’t the ones that are being sought after by people with money?”

Enter Fletcher’s brainchild, the HealthTech CoLab.

In addition to a virtual and in-person space for undergraduate, graduate, and faculty teams to harness their human experiences, trade stories, and start dialogues, the CoLab will provide space for student teams, host workshops and talks, and be a place for teams and industry to connect and share each other’s know-how.

“Having an impact on health requires input from a lot of directions — from clinicians, from technologists, from patients, from healthcare providers,” said Fletcher. “It’s such a complex problem that I think we need a space where we can focus attention on that collaboration and not just the technology development.”

The need for this kind of space, unconstrained by profit-first notions of success, was made all the more pressing by the pandemic, which revealed serious inadequacies in healthcare systems — from delays in receiving Covid-19 test results to difficulties even accessing quality care. “It makes this an exciting and urgent time to try and change that,” Fletcher said. “There is a dire need for expanding access to quality healthcare.” 

“The CoLab will be a hub of cross-pollination within and beyond campus,” said CoLab Manager Karenna Rehorn. “Great innovation doesn’t happen in a silo, and developing a medical device that truly addresses a pressing need in healthcare should incorporate the perspectives of those it’s intended to benefit as well as those who know how to bring the initial idea into the field.”

Once Fletcher and crew had the vision in hand, a spate of supporters also keen on changing the way healthcare is delivered stepped in to get the lab off the ground, including the Harvey and Leslie Wagner Foundation, Mitsuru and Lucinda Igarashi, former Vodafone CEO and Blum Center trustee Arun Sarin, and the CoLab’s first corporate partner, HCL Technologies.

A group of young adults, both men and women, are gathered around a table in an indoor setting. They are all wearing face masks. On the table, there are various technical devices and equipment, including a tablet and what looks like a microscope or similar apparatus. A woman on the left is speaking and gesturing with her hands, possibly explaining something to the group. The group appears engaged and attentive to the explanation.
Researchers show off the Fletcher Lab’s CellScope, which can make a high-quality microscope out of a smartphone camera. (Judah Marsden photo)

Last month, the CoLab was officially introduced in a grand-opening ceremony with balloons, HealthTech CoLab merch, and, of course, CoLab face masks. On display or being demoed during the opening were social tech innovations of the sort that will eventually develop in the CoLab: We Care Solar, KovaDx, RespiraWorks, CellScope, and Sal-Patch — most of which originated at UC Berkeley, many through the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, also housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems.

“The HealthTech CoLab will help upcoming Big Ideas health projects by offering access to everything from industry feedback to the space and resources needed to further their social ventures to the point where they know they have some traction,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny.

The 3,000-square-foot lab is home to a new conference room and small meeting room with video-conferencing systems. The main space hosts electrified work tables, A/V capabilities, and lockers for teams. The set-up allows the CoLab to seamlessly transition between, say, several in-person team meetings and a virtual symposium. 

“What astonished the Dean’s Office was how quickly this came together,” recalled Karl van Bibber, professor of nuclear engineering and the college’s executive associate dean, at last month’s opening. “When I got the email that said, ‘Could you come here? We’re having the opening,’ I said, ‘Already?’”

Eight inaugural teams will be selected later this fall semester for up to a year’s stay in the CoLab.

“The real work begins now,” said Fletcher. “The set up is done, but now the work of inspiring and organizing and encouraging student teams and faculty labs begins.”

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Host and Fellow Responsibilities

Host Organizations

  • Identify staff supervisor to manage I&E Climate Action Fellow
  • Submit fellowship description and tasks
  • Engage in the matching process
  • Mentor and advise students
  • Communicate with Berkeley program director and give feedback on the program.

Berkeley Program Director​

  • Communicate with host organizations, students, and other university departments to ensure smooth program operations

Student Fellows

  • Complete application and cohort activities
  • Communicate with staff and host organizations
  • Successfully complete assignments from host organization during summer practicum
  • Summarize and report summer experience activities post-fellowship