By Senior Airman Grace Thomson, 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, CAMBRIDGE, Mass.— For years colleges have had great relationships with the Air Force, beginning between 1920 and 1923 when the first Air Force Reserve Officer Training Course units were established. These first ROTC detachments were at the University of California at Berkeley, Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, the University of Washington, Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In recent years the relationship between the Air Force and MIT has strengthened even more with the creation of the Department of the Air Force-MIT Artificial Intelligence Accelerator. The program is a collaboration between the Air and Space Forces and MIT to create new technology that will help the Air Force better complete their mission.
With the demands of this new program came the need for interns and the first place they looked was Detachment 365 which is based out of MIT, but also serves Harvard University, Tufts University, and Wellesley College.
“I think it was the January or February timeframe of 2020 that Dr. Jeremy Kepner from Lincoln Laboratory came to us and said ‘We have ROTC cadets with these resumes who would like to continue to work on these projects,’” said Capt. Victor Lopez, DAF-MIT AIA project lead for reconnaissance. “I think all of us thought about it and said this is a really great opportunity. We’re already at this university.”
As of February 2020, there have been several cadets that have interned with the program in various capacities.
Catherine Johnson, Cadet Major with Detachment 365 and MIT student majoring in computer science, is one such intern.
She said that her dream job with the Air Force would be something in the cyber realm which is why she wanted to take this opportunity to become an intern with the DAF-MIT AI program.
“I applied for the Air Force AI Accelerator internship in the spring of my sophomore year and I was super excited about the idea of working with them, but I felt like I was pretty inexperienced,” said Johnson.
Even with this feeling Johnson took her background and perseverance and worked in the Air Guardian group where she said, “their mission is to create a sort of Guardian AI that sits in the plane and assists the pilot in safe decision making.”
She said that when she joined the project, they had just started creating drone simulations and that there were so many different aspects of the project so she could work on what she wanted.
“One of the things that they kept throwing around, but nobody had started working on was the idea of designing one for aerial refueling,” said Johnson.
This particular aspect of the project intrigued her because her father used to be an F-4 pilot when he was in the Air Force.
Lopez said that, “Catherine was helping out with some of those simulations and it was really funny because at one point we were trying to figure out what should be the limits of the boom as it connects to the airplane? She said, ‘I don’t know but hold on’ then she reaches behind her because during COVID she was at home, and she pulls out one of her dad’s books because he had the technical manual for one of the aircraft.”
Johnson is not the only cadet making an impact on the program, another ROTC cadet also began paving her own way.
Julia Graham, cadet with Detachment 365 and student at Tufts University, was the first Public Affairs intern that the Air Force-MIT AI Accelerator Program had.
“It was really cool to be the first Public Affairs intern for something like this, something so monumental,” she said. “I really got to see how everyone involved was trying to create the culture and message of the accelerator from the ground up. It was really unique.”
Though the program focuses on artificial intelligence there is a need to communicate with the community about the progress being made and the projects themselves. That is where Graham came in.
“I worked on getting [the] social media and the website up and running for the Accelerator and I worked on creating marketing pamphlets to advertise the different projects within the Accelerator,” Graham said.
Graham said that in order to make those pamphlets she had to do quite a lot of research in order to understand what the projects were and how they worked.
“I got to take all of that language that I didn’t really understand and [rework] it in a way that I understood,” she said. After she understood the technical aspects of the project, she was then able to put it into terms that the public would understand.
In order to grasp the complex technology that the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator program is working on she said that she not only had to do research on her own, but also speak with several of the people on the projects in order to get a better understanding.
Graham said that due to COVID-19 she had more opportunity to “…listen in on so many things that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise and talk to people working toward this common goal from different ends of the world it was really incredible.”
All of the cadets that interned with the program had the opportunity to learn from both MIT professors as well as dedicated Air Force Airmen and to take part in what Graham did. There were several projects that the cadets worked on that have civilian world applications, as well as military ones.
That is what Kaira Samuel, cadet with Detachment 365 and student at MIT, worked on when she interned with the program as a mechanical engineering major who hopes to focus on biomedical devices.
When Samuel applied to the program with Dr. Jeremy Kepner, MIT Lincoln Laboratory Fellow, she said that “…he gave me a list of projects that they were working on and said, ‘which one do you think that you’d be interested in?’ and then [we] corresponded until I settled on a project.”
She decided to work with their COVID-19 fast mapping project. “I thought that it was very topical and interesting,” said Samuel. “As I’m trained to major in something medical-related I wanted some connection to that. I thought ‘even though the work I would be doing isn’t exactly related there is that connection that I felt was good.”
The project Samuel was working on came about because of COVID-19, which hit the United States in early 2020.
“Since it was a new project, there was a learning curve for everyone to see what exactly was needed,” she said. “What it ended up being was this tool that they’d already developed, but we wanted to try and get it out to emergency operation centers so that it could actually be used. I made a video demonstration of just how the tool operates that can hopefully help in the future if people decide that they want to use it.”
Her major contribution to the project was increasing the usability of the fast-mapping tools so that emergency operation centers can track COVID-19 cases faster and more easily.
Now, Samuel is working on a different project that deals with improving pilot education and how pilots are being trained. Her job with this project is to create a website that shares the data from the flight simulators so that others can attach different maneuvers that have been identified.
These cadets may only be undergraduate students, but their work is important to the program as a whole because they have a connection to the research as well as the Air Force.
Kepner said, “The cadets perform the same activities as other undergraduate researchers, but they bring the added benefit and motivation of knowing this research will directly impact their branch.”
That is part of the appeal of this program. It brought together all of these people from academia and defense to advance these ideas into the world. The cadets act as another conduit to bridge between the students and professors at MIT and Lincoln Lab with the Air Force.
“Over a dozen cadets have had the opportunity to work closely with our AI Accelerator projects,” said Kepner.
The internship is great for these cadets in more ways than one. They not only get the opportunity to gain experience with AI, but they also get to learn more about the Air and Space Forces and where they are going in the future.
“I think leading by example has been the biggest thing that they’ve done,” said Johnson. “I always want to be able to be there for my Airmen like the team that I’m working on [now].”
Through ROTC they have classes that teach them the customs and courtesies, but being able to have a discussion with multiple Air Force enlisted and officers is a great opportunity for them.
“Being able to also be a part of the ROTC career days has been really effective on answering questions like ‘how do I go to a test pilot school’ or ‘what is pilot training going to be like’ or ‘how do we deal with marriages in the military and dual military spouses,’ all of these normal questions,” said Lopez.
There is more to the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator than just creating new technology for the military to use, it also exemplifies what people can do when they work together.
“At the end of the day, part of our mission at the accelerator is not just to do research and create publications and find ways to bring technology into the gap,” said Lopez. “It’s also to be liaisons and to be advocates for what government service is going to look like, what the military’s role in this new space is going to be and ensuring that it is in line with the democratic principles, ethics and morals that we want our country to have.”