A hackfest, otherwise known as a hackathon or code sprint, is a common way for free and open source software (FOSS) projects to engage and enable communities.

DARPA SDR Hackfests

As science and technology continue to advance and further accelerate the speed of innovation, DARPA’s interest in building common platforms, toolsets, and fundamental skills has grown. That interest has been a long-standing tenet of the FOSS community as well, and DARPA believes that building an engagement between the FOSS and DARPA communities will allow both communities to benefit from and promote the use of advanced technology. DARPA’s Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfests are set up to engage a community that includes more than just the core developers of a project. While the DARPA Brussels Hackfest aimed to address complex issues of Software Defined Radio (SDR or, more colloquially, software radio, SR) and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), these questions can only be answered by addressing a set of problems that span multiple fields and disciplines.

Traditionally, software radio programming has been limited to a niche set of engineers and computer scientists specifically interested in this problem space. Yet a growing number of communities are identifying the utility of software radio. Already, software radio is being used successfully in research, prototyping, and development of new wireless communications and radar systems.

Beyond those domains, SR is finding its way into fields such as information security and cellular technology development. Security concerns in wireless are increasing due to the amount of data collected and transmitted through wireless internet connections as well as the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).

As future cellular standards evolve ever more quickly, so too must the communications infrastructure. In addition, most cellular base stations are software radios, and much of the work going into massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) systems is performed with software radio.

The Brussels Hackfest and subsequent planned events are designed as a way for DARPA to collaborate with a larger community of interested engineers and scientists working towards the future confluence of radio and information technology.


In the mid-19th century, James Clerk Maxwell developed the mathematical framework that describes electromagnetic waves and how they behave. That foundation has enabled us to build many of the industries that define our society, among them television, radio, smart phones, space exploration, and the Internet.

The practical work began with Heinrich Hertz’s first experiments proving the existence of electromagnetic (EM) waves and Guglielmo Marconi’s creation of the wireless industry soon thereafter. Among the many wireless advances ever since, the recent invention of software radio has proven to be one of the most powerful ways to explore EM waves. Important to the ongoing ascent of software radio was the development of GNU Radio, a free and open source (FOSS) development platform for building software radio applications. This user-friendly toolkit enables anyone to innovate within this exciting area of science and technology.

What I want to ask now is this: what are we going to do with this power to innovate?

The DARPA Bay Area Hackfest, in partnership with NASA Ames, is designed to help us explore software radio technology in new and interesting ways that are likely to become consequential in both civilian and national security contexts. Toward that end, my team is putting a software radio onto a remotely piloted aircraft, a UAV, and we will make this model system available at the Hackfest to innovators in the community, who we hope will develop exciting new opportunities to build better and more complex cyber-physical systems.

The Hackfest, which is open to anyone, comprises three parts: a speaker series, a hacker space, and the Hackfest Missions. The speaker series and hacker space run throughout the week as open sessions for anyone to come to and interact with experts and enthusiasts in software radio and UAVs. In the Missions portion of the Hackfest, we are asking participating teams to solve specific technology goals based around the software radio-enabled UAV. Those wishing to participate in the Missions portion, however, must apply to do so. In this talk, I will describe the Hackfest in detail and specify how to participate in the Missions.

By opening new ways for programming wireless systems, whether they are UAVs or internet-connected household appliances, software radio can provide the foundation for many future capabilities. This Hackfest provides an opportunity to make a big step in that exciting direction.