Commercial Hunter shows the amazing talents of future engineers

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

I lived and breathed Dallas Cowboys football as a kid, and one of my greatest childhood moments occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1974. The Cowboys were playing George Allen’s Washington Redskins on national TV. Down 16-3 in the third quarter, our hero Roger Staubach gets knocked out of the game. In comes the unknown, inexperienced Clint Longley to replace the future legend. I’d never heard of the guy before that moment.

The remaining quarter and half still stand as the most exciting football of my life, with the “mad bomber” throwing a 50-yard winning touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with only 28 seconds left on the clock.

In the chaos of the aftermath, a reporter approached Cowboys’ offensive lineman and poet laureate Blain Nye for a quote on how this young gunslinger could have possibly won the game against such tremendous odds. Nye said with a wry smile, “we just witnessed the triumph of the uncluttered mind.”

We often forget how young minds, with bandwidth to spare, can dream up the most amazing things. Take Philo T. Farnsworth — it is still unimaginable that the father of television was none other than this 14-year-old Utah farm boy.

I recently witnessed another example of the triumph of young engineering minds. (Stay with me here, the story jumps around a bit.)

One of the most difficult challenges faced by our mighty military in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the devilish and relentlessly creative weapons deployed by the insurgents. In spite of our advanced weapons systems, we have sadly lost many men and women to tech-savvy terrorists.

To better understand and combat these asymmetrical threats, the U.S. Marine Corps came to my engineering school with a challenge for our students: Mimic the behaviors of these enemies (in other words, think like a terrorist) to help develop the necessary countermeasures. The game is simple — you are young, you hate America, you have a credit card and access to the Internet. In just a handful of days, you are to dream up, develop and then prototype threats that we used to think were beyond the capabilities of “primitive” warlords. Then, before these threats are ever used, create the necessary defenses to secure our Marines. This real-world program goes by the code name Commercial Hunter.

Is it really possible for a small group of inexperienced engineering students to dream up and build malicious technologies from bits and pieces of commercial hardware found on the Internet? Well, you just have to see it to believe it.

Driven by clear national security objectives, and monitored very carefully by the Marines, these “kids” dug out real threats that would make your hair stand on end. I was both shocked and impressed by the range and creativity demonstrated by our students. In just one example, these future engineers were able to build a GPS-guided rocket for less than $200. In about a week, the students conceived of something that our experts hoped was decades away from being in the hands of terrorists, criminals and enemies of state.

So where do we go from here now that the genie really is out of the bottle? How do our export control laws protect our forces when terrorists just won’t fight fair? Commercial airliners aren’t supposed to be bombs and kids aren’t supposed to be able to buy seemingly random parts from across the globe to thwart the world’s most powerful military.

I work with these amazing young people, so I really shouldn’t be surprised at the capacity of the “uncluttered mind.” Their biggest leg up may be their unwillingness to patently accept old-school ideas of U.S. technological advantage. It’s the way our young enemies think, too.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .