Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

The Subtle Art of 'Hacking' UFOs

The UFO community might be looking for aliens, but with projects like Sky Hub, their work could yield technological breakthroughs even if they don't find any.

In July of 1853, four immense and mysterious black ships steamed into Tokyo Bay, belching smoke from their tall stacks. The Japanese navy, whose sailing ships made of wood and bearing tall sailed masts, surrounded the mysterious vessels. Sailors stood in awe on their boats' decks, wondering how these four bizarre ironclad ships moved without the support of the wind or sails. 

This small fleet was commanded by the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry on his way to Edo, the capital of Japan, on a mission to force the island nation into trade negotiations. As the cultural communications professor Kazuo Nishiyama described, when the Japanese came face to face with an advanced system of propulsion—in this case, the steam engine—they chose to engage in a complete societal shift, leading to an intense scientific and technological revolution.


Two centuries later, several news outlets reported that naval aviators flying America's finest aircraft off the coast of California in November of 2004 intercepted a bizarre and mysterious object. The pilots, who managed to capture it on video, later recounted its ability to move through the air without wings or a visible propulsion source. According to their testimony, this UAP, or unidentified aerial phenomena, performed strange maneuvers and accelerated at a rate of speed impossible to reach with today's leading propulsion technology. There have been reports of several other similar incidents. Much like the sailors in Tokyo Bay, these aviators came face to face with the unknown, and they undoubtedly realized that the best tools designed to keep the people on the shore safe stood no chance against whatever this new technology was. 

The recent UFO incidents involving the US Navy and unidentified aerial incursions into American airspace have left the public wondering what is going on. If we put the speculation concerning Hollywood aliens and government conspiracies to one side, we are left with an irrefutable issue: Something is up there and enjoying free reign over sovereign airspace. For a handful of security experts, scientists, and entrepreneurs, that something is worth investigating. And some see the contemporary quest to investigate UAP as a source for novel ideas and technological innovation.


"We are not a company that runs away from hard problems, we run to them," said Ben Lamm, the CEO of Hypergiant Industries, a Texas-based technology and AI company. "I believe in diving into things that scare people. If we do not address our fears, they will eat us alive."

Lamm is a serial entrepreneur and former video game developer who has sold his previous companies to significant players like Accenture and Zynga. Holding various defense and industrial contracts with the US Air Force, Booz Allen Hamilton, NASA, Shell, the Department of Homeland Security, and other major private and government agencies, he finds the idea of UFOs intriguing. 

"I am concerned with answering big questions about the universe, and unknown aerial phenomena are currently a big question," Lamm said in an interview with Motherboard. "Right now, we know there are UAP. We have multiple videos that have been validated by both our military and leading and established news outlets. There is no reason not to leverage AI and data. We have to try to solve these questions."

Lamm views the question around UAP as a sort of "moonshot." Getting to the moon was the goal, but the technology developed to make that journey possible was revolutionary. Lamm is unsure if UFOs are real, but he believes that using technology to figure it out will lead to novel and even game-changing technologies. 


In February, Motherboard reported that Lamm was developing CONTACT, or the Contextually Organized Non-Terrestrial Active Capture Tool. According to Lamm, the platform will be made up of satellites utilizing machine learning and artificial intelligence to passively monitor the skies. Using advanced radar technology, known as wave induction radar and inverse synthetic aperture radar, the system will filter out known objects such as commercial jetliners and be able to collect data and image, in three dimensions, any unknown objects in the sky.

For Lamm, part of the solution to the mystery is using data to identify and track these unknown objects. The benefit of using technology that sounds vaguely like something out of an Iron Man movie, Lamm believes, is that as the data begin to come in, a better picture can be painted of what these objects are.  

This is not the first time a project using intelligence gathering to investigate anomalous aerial objects has been launched. In 2008, the Defense Intelligence Agency initiated the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP, to investigate UFO incidents. The program's overall goal was to investigate UFO sightings and establish new theories concerning how these objects worked. In June of this year, Motherboard reported that Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill demanding the Department of Defence and the office of the Director of National Intelligence generate a report to divulge what exactly the various military and intelligence branches are doing regarding UAP incursions. The bill disclosed that the government—chiefly the Office of Naval Intelligence—was actively engaged in continuing AATIP's mission. 


"Congress appropriated funds for UAP research but did not mandate that the Department of Defence or intelligence departments or agencies support the AATIP program," Chris Mellon, the former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, told Motherboard in an interview. "Perhaps AATIP's sponsors on the Hill naively thought the DoD bureaucracy would operate in good faith and do its best to support the AATIP investigation, but that didn't happen. So AATIP was isolated rather than integrated and seemed to have made limited headway."

Currently, Mellon is an advisor for Tom DeLonge's To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science and regularly appears on History Channel's Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation. Before that, he spent a decade working on Capitol Hill in various security and intelligence roles.

"I was shocked to learn that naval aviators and carrier battle groups were detecting scores of UAPs off the East Coast. What thoroughly outraged me, however, was the fact that this information was being suppressed, and these units were getting no support. From an intelligence perspective, I found that totally unacceptable," Mellon said. American airspace was seemingly being violated repeatedly by unknown and advanced aircraft. According to Mellon, senior US military and civilian officials were not being issued warnings concerning these incursions. Mellon considers it an "intelligence failure."


"Regardless of their origin or intent, the intelligence community is failing the nation if unidentified aircraft can reconnoiter DoD operations for months and years on end without any notification of senior officials in a position to respond," Mellon said. "To date, there seems to be little if any contribution to DoD technology resulting from the study of UAPs because DoD is only beginning to awaken and take the issue seriously."

The former head of the Pentagon's AATIP program, Luis Elizondo, agrees with Mellon's overall assessment, but explained that after leaving the Pentagon's UAP program in 2017, things have changed.

"Unfortunately, I cannot speak officially as to the current nature of the UAP Task Force, but I have every indication to believe that it is up and running, and is executing the mission consistent with the fundamental principles of AATIP," Elizondo told Motherboard in an interview. Elizondo explained that the current task force has better resources and "is far more robust" than AATIP was while he served with the Pentagon. However, seeing that the overall mission is to not only investigate but to "understand" how these objects work, more funding would be beneficial.

"Let's look at it this way. Say we want to know how a new Russian aircraft works. We can collect information on it. We can talk to people who've flown it. We can talk to the company that makes it. But the best way to understand it is to try and get your hands on one, and exploit it so you can make your own version of it," Elizondo said.  


Alongside these official endeavors, the UFO community continues unabated to engage in research. While the government is still interested in the subject, the grassroots UFO community has always tried to find its own solutions. And as technology continues to develop, astute operators attempt new ways to collect data on UAP. 

"If you look at UFO videos or pictures, they are usually poor quality, blurry, or just pictures that appear to be light backscatter," said Steve McDaniel, a Maryland-based software engineer. He has worked for defense contractors and other Big Data companies like Intel. "Our goal is to enable the collection of high fidelity data from all over the world to create a data set that is worthy of scientific research." 

McDaniel and his colleagues are developing Sky Hub. This open-source observational platform collects video and sensor data of unknown aerial phenomena and aggregates it from trackers worldwide into a central public database. 

"Essentially, this comes down to developing a platform and an approach to performing Observational Science on the phenomenon. We're providing the tools to do just that," McDaniel told Motherboard in an interview. 

According to the Sky Hub website, the hardware for the Sky Hub is community-driven, and anyone can build their system from parts bought off Amazon. According to McDaniel, a decent SkyHub rig consists of an NVIDIA Jetson Nano microcomputer, various sensors such as a GPS receiver and a Witmotion module, and an HD camera. Such a system can cost anywhere between $300 and $1000. The software is free and open-source on GitLab. 


"Developing an observation science platform is time-consuming and has taken me a significant amount of work. I've invested thousands of hours architecting, developing, and implementing the entire system," McDaniel said. Initially, he was the only engineer on the project, but has since been joined by software developer Corey Gaspard. 

"Engineers join open source projects because they believe in the goals of the project. All personal beliefs are put aside with Sky Hub. The project is making no assumptions. If engineers want to know the answer about what UAPs are, then we welcome them to find the answer with us," McDaniel said, noting that finding engineers was difficult. The UAP subject still has a significant stigma attached to it; McDaniel said that the best way to reduce that stigma is to provide repeatable and verifiable data. 

"Most UAP events in the past have only had eyewitness testimony, which is unreliable. Sky Hub systems will provide hard data on events that cannot be disputed," McDaniel said 

Hunting UFOs aside, McDaniel sees a significant scientific value to the project. 

"As the Sky Hub network grows, it may be possible to use our dataset to track bird migration patterns, make use of detailed weather and atmospheric data, and understanding on a large scale how different events (observed by video with associated sensor data) affect the local environment. And all of this data collection will be tagged with GPS time and location," he said. 

"Technology has long been influenced by what we would call 'science fiction,'" said Dr. Matthew Hersch, who teaches the history of science at Harvard. He noted that even as early as the 13th century, the best minds imagined automobiles and elevators; human ideas have always circled the imagining of impossible things. 

"People can imagine much more than they can ever build, and UFO mythologies embrace a variety of propositions that are flat-out impossible or technically foolish," Hersch told Motherboard. "Given these and other limitations, I don't have a great deal of confidence in the ability to harvest astounding new technologies from UFO rumors. There is very little these rumors provide that is new, and aerospace engineers have been trying to make sense of them for 70 years without success."

Like Lamm and McDaniel, Mellon argues that aerial anomalies are "potential gold for both science and intelligence." Unfortunately, they are attached to a deep-rooted stigma that dissuades legitimate scientific pursuit and hinders professional reputations.

"This is a terrible mismatch for what is supposed to be a curious, inquisitive, open-minded, and scientific intelligence community," Mellon said. "Those providing new information and insights should be rewarded rather than penalized." McDaniel concurs, claiming that finding engineers to come work on Sky Hub is difficult because they don't want to attach themselves to something that deals with UFOs. Lamm also recognizes the problem, but notes that the vast majority of technological developments we enjoy today were once impossible.

"When we decide something is impossible or 'science fiction,' we forget that nearly everything was once seemingly impossible: flying, driving, satellites, landing on the moon. Yet human ingenuity has proved over and over again that nothing is impossible," Lamm said. "It is this inquiry into the impossible that makes giant breakthroughs in human progress. UFOs may not exist, but trying to figure out if they do (and looking at this question cross-functionally) is the sort of challenge that will force humanity to think in new ways, imagine new possibilities and develop technologies that may otherwise seem impossible." 

Whether the UFO phenomenon is a total delusion, a hoax, or something fundamentally more interesting, there is little doubt that the mythos has driven much imagination. However, if there is some genuinely unknown aspect to unidentified aerial phenomena, humanity may be heading towards its next great technological revolution. After all, all it took for Japan to restructure its nation were four American gunboats chugging towards Edo.