IDF Computer Geniuses Invent the Impossible at 48-Hour Hackathon

Last week, just days before the end of their training to become officers, soldiers in the Air Force’s Ofek Unit participated in a 48-hour hackathon. The goal of this exercise: for soldiers to innovate, create and keep themselves on their toes. This out-of-the-box thinking is why the Ofek Unit was presented, in the same week, with the Chief of Staff’s Award for Excellence.

Last week, the Israel Air Force’s Ofek Unit received the Chief of Staff’s Award for Excellence. The award recognizes the unit’s many years of intense focus on innovation. “Excellence for me is a way of life,” says Col. U, the commander of the unit. “It’s a worldview that says that in everything you do, from big to small, do it in the best and most correct way that you can,” he says.

Ofek soldiers at work

“The Ofek Unit, as the elite programming unit of the Israel Air Force, is here to strengthen the Air Force, to provide the added value and the qualitative advantage,” he continues. “And it seems that we do this well – through the many operational capabilities that we develop, and through the very strong spirit of our people – who serve with initiative, inventiveness and creativity.”

During the 48-hour hackathon, the unit’s soldiers were tasked with developing new computer programs for the Air Force and the IDF. At the end of the session, participants presented their concepts to other soldiers, commanders responsible for their training, and the commander of their unit. “I have no idea what they’ve developed since yesterday morning,” says Col. U, just a few minutes before the beginning of the presentations. “I want to be surprised.”

The soldiers involved were divided into three groups, each of which was responsible for developing a computer program of its choice. These programs could go on to play a central role in the Air Forces’ systems. “Our relationship with the rest of the Air Force is very strong,” says Col U. We know in advance what is expected of us, and we bring those solutions very quickly to the battlefield.”

Ofek soldiers at work

One program, called “Kinetics,” was the first of three innovative concepts developed by the soldiers. A soldier presented the project before a dazzled audience, controlling a computerized map that allowed him to move across virtual terrain using hand gestures. He moved quickly from right to left, zooming in and out and adding markers to various points on the map.

Before the hackathon started, the groups sat down and thought carefully about what the Air Force actually needs. “We’ve been here since yesterday, and we haven’t stopped,” says one of the soldiers. “We even slept here last night. This hackathon was an unforgettable experience and a real pleasure to participate in.”

At the end of the presentations, Col. U had one crucial message for the unit’s soldiers: that the unit’s goal is to do what until recently the world thought was impossible.

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