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The Military United States Technology

Find DARPA's Balloons, Win $40K 252

coondoggie writes "The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency today offered up a rather interesting challenge: find and plot 10 red weather balloons scattered at undisclosed locations across the country. The first person to identify the location of all the balloons and enter them on the challenge Web site will win a $40,000 cash prize. According to the agency, the balloons will be in readily accessible locations, visible from nearby roadways and accompanied by DARPA representatives. All balloons are scheduled to go on display at all locations at 10:00AM (ET) until approximately 4:00 PM on Saturday, December 5, 2009."
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Find DARPA's Balloons, Win $40K

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  • Floating? (Score:2, Funny)

    by rossdee ( 243626 )

    Don't weather ballons float around on high altitude winds?

    Of course UFO's are often claimed to be weather baloons by the Govt. Is this a cover up?

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:26AM (#29947244) Homepage
    An unholy mashup between Twitter and a bunch of cell phone cameras.
    • by sopssa ( 1498795 ) *

      OK, I'm happily joining in here from Germany!

    • by Mattwolf7 ( 633112 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:39AM (#29947336)
      It's kind of the point: "In the 40 years since this breakthrough, the Internet has become an integral part of society and the global economy. The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems."
    • by KibibyteBrain ( 1455987 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:39AM (#29947696)
      That's probably the point. DARPA wants to demonstrate empirically that mobile communications have reached the point where ordinary people can coordinate using ordinary technology to achieve what would historically have needed to be a fine tuned professional intelligence operation.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by izomiac ( 815208 )
        That has some interesting applications. Whereas it might take hundreds or thousands of UAVs/aircraft to locate these balloons, a sympathetic population might very well be able to do it for a fraction of the cost and risk. Who knows, maybe the next time we're occupying a country the military might give out free cell phones to generate a little good will and put the population to work finding our enemies.
      • It also could have been done in a period where each town had a telephone. Really, we could have done it during roman times, It would of course take longer to send messages when we found them. The only new advantage the internet gave is oddly enough getting the message to so many people at the same time.
  • by VinylRecords ( 1292374 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:29AM (#29947266)

    Not another balloon hoax!

  • Help me find them! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by PapiAlDente ( 155162 )
    Come help find the balloons at a collaborative website--first to find each balloon gets to share in the prize money! http://balloonfinder.superfunhappy.com [superfunhappy.com]
  • Anyone with access to satellite imagery? If you have a satellite camera, you could open a website,"FindDarpaBallons.com" and pay people who find the balloons 500$ each to report them to you. Then just use your Satellite to confirm it. Send in to Darpa, make 40k, pay out 5k, and be up 35k.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Nanidin ( 729400 )

      Most major roadways (at least in my moderately sized city of around 4 million) have traffic cameras all up and down them that are freely accessible. I'm guessing this would be a valid strategy - run image analysis on all of the traffic cams you can get your hands on for red balloons.

      Wouldn't surprise me if this is what the purpose of the contest is - to get someone to develop this software for them.

    • Because of course everyone has access to a controllable camera on a satellite...

      Not sure how you figured this as a 'serious' entry...

  • One person? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by paul248 ( 536459 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:39AM (#29947330) Homepage

    So, only one person wins the prize, even though it will almost certainly require the effort of an online community? This sounds like a breeding ground for betrayal.

    • Re:One person? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Yvan256 ( 722131 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:44AM (#29947370) Homepage Journal

      Maybe that's the actual goal of that challenge. Not how people will find the balloons but how people will cooperate together if there's only a single prize to be won.

      • Re:One person? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by paul248 ( 536459 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:48AM (#29947398) Homepage

        Actually, I was thinking more about that. A public online community will help you find all the real coordinates quickly, but there will undoubtedly be a lot of *fake* coordinates mixed in.

        I think the real challenge won't be in finding the balloons, it will be in validating and filtering out all the non-balloons.

        • Re:One person? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by tdvaughan ( 582870 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @05:42AM (#29948586) Homepage
          Actually, the real challenge will be stopping people from placing fake balloons that look just like the real ones. It's what I would do if I really wanted to win the prize.
          • Luckily for the project, both you and the GP are the rare members of society who, like myself, think of deviant ways to hack the system.

            Most people are sheep.

        • Re:One person? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Phat_Tony ( 661117 ) * on Monday November 02, 2009 @07:36AM (#29948946)
          This contest absolutely is not about using technology to coordinate, as is roughly implied in DARPA's statement

          The DARPA Network Challenge explores the unprecedented ability of the Internet to bring people together to solve tough problems.

          That is, it's not about disparate strangers coordinating quickly, as might be useful in, say, a natural crisis like an earthquake or hurricane or missing child, but networks of social trust. If they just wanted to see how fast people could put together an ad hoc information network, I bet they'd get less wrong answers submitted and the right answer submitted much sooner if there were no prize involved - people would be free with the information because it would just be a game. There'd be no incentive for deception or secrecy.

          I'm guessing DARPA doesn't care about that. That's why they've got $40k on the line- not to promote communication, but to promote disinformation. They don't want to know who can build a network with modern technology, they want to know how people will build a network of trust when there's a serious incentive for betrayal.

          • Re:One person? (Score:5, Insightful)

            by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwaterNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday November 02, 2009 @11:49AM (#29950814) Homepage

            I'm guessing DARPA doesn't care about that. That's why they've got $40k on the line- not to promote communication, but to promote disinformation. They don't want to know who can build a network with modern technology, they want to know how people will build a network of trust when there's a serious incentive for betrayal.

            Betrayal is also a function of who makes up the ad hoc network, that is whether it is truly spontaneous and ad hoc among the general population or whether it arises within an existing network. My bet is that if the prize is won at all, it will be within a network that already exists. The general population is too diffuse and unorganized to gather all the data and organize and filter it.
            Therefore you can examine various groups and their characteristics and determine the odds of betrayal. For example, if the B-tards decide to go after the prize, the odds of betrayal are essentially unity. (But their self generated noise level would probably prevent them from winning.) If the Boy Scouts decide to do so, the odds of betrayal go way down. (Bit I don't know if the Boy Scouts have the reasonably centralized and connected communications network need to make this work.)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by polymeris ( 902231 )

      It probably is some kind of social experiment to see who people trust over the Internet and under time pressure.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by dynamo52 ( 890601 )
        I was thinking it is more to test their abilities to filter and monitor internet traffic patterns related to a particular event. How much do you want to bet Echelon will be scanning for the words "red" and "balloon" during the challenge?
        • by BitHive ( 578094 )

          Why would they need to manufacture an event to do that?

          • Re:One person? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by dynamo52 ( 890601 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @02:30AM (#29947932)
            Possibly to determine if they are able to focus in on an unknown individual who has managed to acquire certain specific information in a timely manner. I could see many anti-terrorism implications in an experiment of this nature.
            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by hoggoth ( 414195 )

              While the internet public at large is attempting to mobilize to find the red balloons, DARPA will be monitoring the 'net attempting to stay on top of an unknown number of organizations comprised of an unknown number of individuals coordinating using unknown protocols and communications channels. This will be valuable information similar to finding and shutting down terrorist cells. Expect the front-runner group to be infiltrated by a covert DARPA agent and some key people to "disappear" until after the dead

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by GameboyRMH ( 1153867 )
            Also this allows them to:

            - Prepare, plan and hypothesize ahead of time - not really possible with a non-manufactured event.

            - Create a unique situation, making the experiment easier by reducing the amount irrelevant information that will be turned up looking for info relating to the event.

            - As others have said, this has a social experiment aspect to it as well - who will win with such a big incentive for betrayal? A small well-organized group, or an aggregator site that grabs loads of possibly usele
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by El Micko ( 118401 ) *

      If the problem is who gets the prize..
      And that's the stumbling block, preventing widespread collaboration..
      Set up your collective to donate to a charity, or the EFF, or Cowboy Neal... or something worthwhile.

      Go on.. it'll be more fun than a LUG meeting.

      How hard can it be to mobilise tens of thousands of Nerds..

      (Unless its really windy.. these suckers arent getting to Australia.. so I cant help..)

      They should release 99 luftballoons! Sorry. Unecessary 80's flash back there..

  • by NuclearError ( 1256172 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @12:42AM (#29947348)
    Here's [bleen.ro] a handy chart for finding the balloons.
  • by kaleth ( 66639 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:08AM (#29947510)

    There should have been 99.

  • by ipc0nfig ( 1486043 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:09AM (#29947520)

    A big red balloon with guys waiting around it all day, yeah, that's not going to freak anyone out.

    http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/01/31/boston.bombscare/index.html [cnn.com]

  • by KingJackaL ( 871276 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:15AM (#29947556) Homepage

    Well, it's obvious why DARPA would care how quickly the internet can become aware of accurate and specific information such as 'where is unit X'.

    What I'm curious about is how much mis-information could pop up. What if you mischievously set up your own balloon, that looks identical to the description, as a distraction to other teams/groups?

    What if groups eventually find all the balloons - and there are 13 of them? Is it then time to unleash the perl scripts on DARPA's submission form? So many possible strategies and counter-strategies - but are they actually all just intellectual, or will they play a role in the challenge?

  • Possible strategy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ErikPeterson ( 912282 ) <dexters@NOsPam.erikgpeterson.com> on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:17AM (#29947568)
    I think the best way to attack this problem would be to agree to donate the profits from the award to some worthy cause, letting people with the capability volunteer some time to a solution. Its a fairly complicated problem to solve for the amount of money given to solve it. Lets say a group of capable programmers united for lets say an open source project develop a website that takes in the coordinates in the format required for the contest. The trick is going to be figuring out who is telling the truth when it comes to submitted data... You may be able to assume that if a number set is entered often that it is a candidate to be the real location. The task obviously requires coordination of many life humans as I doubt anyone that can compete has access to satellite time to do an automated search. I am wondering how many people will attempt to put up fake balloon sites to either trick their competition or just get some publicity of tech people to come visit the site and take a GPS reading.
  • Social media test? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by icebike ( 68054 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:20AM (#29947592)

    Since nobody drives everywhere in the country this has got to be some sort of social media test, to see how fast something like twitter could track down any given item/phenomena.

    Defense research angle?

    Nothing to do with the balloons is my bet.

    Not even measuring how long this might take, or how people do it, because they already know the only way is via the internet.

    I suspect they want to watch the internet and see what happens when people start organizing spontaneously into communities.

    This is an exercise in traffic analysis. Pure and simple.

    The scary part, is they have the hooks into the net deep enough that they can pull this off, apparently without warrants. Yes They Can.

    • by topham ( 32406 )

      I was thinking exactly the same thing.

      Otherwise is seems so completely fucking pointless.

      Project Luft Balloon.

    • by spleen_blender ( 949762 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @03:37AM (#29948174)
      I was following you until the part about warrants. What are you thinking could possibly require one that is related to this?
    • Maybe the real game is to try to disrupt those groups searching for balloons. Does DARPA still have enough control to stop groups forming and co-ordinating via twitter/mobile phones/etc? For every civilian team searching for balloons, there is a military team trying to stop them communicating? Watch this message disappear in a minute or two... BTW, balloons make the perfect symbol because DARPA love The Prisoner [wikipedia.org].
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by epine ( 68316 )

      The beauty of this is that it could be a lot of things. If some American official someday leaks "this is why we really did this" the odds that I would discount spin can't be over 50%, which relegates this to a quasi-permanent bucket of unknowability. It's a rare thing when a lightening bolt momentarily catches the men behind the curtain with a ruse in flagrante. The Soviets had their washer microphone. The Americans had the thermohaline undersea acoustic channel (where I live, a couple of decades ago, a

  • by kheldan ( 1460303 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:21AM (#29947596) Journal
    The economy still sucks, DARPA; why are you wasting taxpayer money on bullshit like this?
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by FooAtWFU ( 699187 )
      If they're going to just hand out a lump sum of money to a bunch of random people, at least they're not making them destroy perfectly functional automobiles to do so this time.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by BitHive ( 578094 )

      I'd say it's a bargain. Think about all the driving and snacks, hell, maybe even consumer gadget purchases this contest will inspire. Those have gotta be worth something to the economy. Maybe the next stimulus package should be a scavenger hunt.

    • The average person may think that $40,000 is a lot... but it's nothing in terms of operating budgets for even medium sized companies. From the Darpa site, looking at their unclassified budget for 2010 ( http://www.darpa.mil/Docs/2010PBDARPAMay2009.pdf [darpa.mil] ) (That's a PDF, by the way, and also has numbers for 2009 and 2008), you can see that the budget easily runs into the billions of dollars. For a comparison, forty thousand dollars is 0.004 PERCENT of one billion dollars. To someone with a salary of seventy five thousand dollars a year, the equivalent percentage would be 3 dollars. That's barely pocket change, and it assumes a budget much lower than the actual operating budget of DARPA. Taking this into consideration, that's pretty cheap. Especially if they're planning to study anything by doing this (and if you think they wont get SOMETHING useful out of this, then you're even denser than I am), that's a relative bargain. Even if they DON'T get anything worthwhile out of this contest, the publicity alone is probably worth it when you consider possible recruits that they attract because of increased interest. Your claim that they are 'wasting taxpayer money' is pure FUD, and, to be honest, even if it wasn't, $40k isn't even a drop in the bucket of the 2.3 TRILLION dollars that was collected in taxes in 2008.
    • They're spending more than $40,000. The balloons, the people manning the balloons, the people organizing the contest, this all costs money.
  • by goodmanj ( 234846 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:40AM (#29947702)

    My guess is, we're seeing half of a contest pitting high-end defense technology vs the "stupid cheap easy" solution.

    Mil Contractor: "And so you see, with our latest satellite imaging systems, we can search and pinpoint the location of a human-sized target object within 10 days for a nation the size of the US or Russia."
    Dumb General: "Wow. We need to spend some billions on this."
    Smart General: "Pff. I bet you could do better by plain old "boots on the ground" spywork. You'd need a pretty big network of observers though..."
    Smart 5-star general: "Well, boys, let's find out."

    at least, this is a good enough story that I *hope* it's what's going on...

  • The Purpose (Score:4, Informative)

    by ral ( 93840 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @01:54AM (#29947770)
    The purpose of this exercise can be found here [darpa.mil]:

    To mark the 40th Anniversary of the Internet, DARPA is hosting the DARPA Network Challenge, a competition that will explore the role the Internet and social networking plays in the timely communication, wide area team-building and urgent mobilization required to solve broad scope, time-critical problems.
  • Bloons (Score:2, Funny)

    by blavallee ( 729704 )
    Do I get an extra bonus if I pop them all?
  • Here's a [digitalglobe.com] sample image. [digitalglobe.com] Yes, that's from orbit.

    Each satellite images about 1 million km^2 per day, so in 250 days, they can image the entire planet at high resolution. But they'll do the populated parts of the US more often (they can aim the cameras for each pass), so they will pick up many of the balloons.

    Microsoft Bing is buying all the data, so it's going on line. The data rate is about 50GB/hour. Start programs looking for red dots.

    • And here's a sample filtered image highlighting reds [largeimagehost.com] (smaller mirror [tinypic.com], just in case).

      I dunno. It seems decidedly... non-trivial. Better hope the balloons aren't in any parking lots or too close to roads, or near rooftops, or over racetracks, or in reddish deserts, or above a red car in a red parking lot in the desert, below a high-flying red bird in a superman cape.

      (Red happens. Count on it.)

    • by Genda ( 560240 )

      So pray tell... how are you going to filter out every single red VW bug from your data without filtering out your balloons too??? This is a way bigger problem than a satellite can handle... you have to shoot your cameras up, not down.

  • I'd be willing to bet that it's actually an attempt to encourage probing/attacks on it's website /network. $40k is a pretty good incentive to try and find the answer sheet. Possible goals range from your traditional smoke-out-the-troublemakers-by-having-an-archery-contest to using it to identify skilled individuals for recruitment.
  • I thought that the mind / clairvoyance study had been axed. I see they are reviving it.
    http://movies.apple.com/movies/overture/themenwhostareatgoats/themenwhostareatgoats-clip1_480p.mov [apple.com]

  • I bet it's a social experiment, not tech. There are all sorts of obvious ways to get people to work together, but how can you eliminate bad actors and false data?

    If you have a central clearing house, the data can be stolen by others. If the submitted data is kept private, then the participants need to have a high level of trust in the central organizers. You also need to be resistant to spoofing from other parties, including potentially organized efforts by other groups trying to win the prize.

    My b
  • So I just registered a website, and will set it up in a few days... if you are the first person to submit a correct balloon location, and if we get the 40k, I will paypal $3,000 to the first email address on the submission.
  • With all that money you've appropriated, what better way to waste^H^H^H^H^H spend it then on a tribute to Lamorisse [wikipedia.org].

  • If some folks want to pile into a 172 and go flying around San Diego County/Southern California/anywhere else we can get to from here armed with binoculars and split the cost 4 ways I'm game. I'm not sure what our chances of actually spotting anything would be though.

    • A few more datapoints here: We can reasonably fly anywhere between 1000 and 12,500'. We can fly anywhere between 60kts and 180kts depending on what airplane we want to fly (those are just the ones I reasonably have fast access to).

      Bring good binoculars, fly high, and scan as much ground as possible as fast as possible? Fly just high enough that we can recognize weather balloons?

      Anyone got a red weather balloon or red object of equivalent size we can set up in a field somewhere soon and experiment with? We c

  • Anyone else noticed DARPA's recent major marketing/publicity campaign? There is now this well-publicized balloon hunt. There was the televised robotic vehicle challenge. Even very recently, DARPA was central to the plot of an episode [cbs.com] of NCIS: LA. Its research efforts [scientificamerican.com] have been given very visible press in magazines such as Scientific American. (Look here [scientificamerican.com] for another recent SA article about DARPA research.) DARPA has also been featured twice on 60 Minutes in the past few months. And, it now has quite a fo [facebook.com]

  • Decoys (Score:5, Funny)

    by slasho81 ( 455509 ) on Monday November 02, 2009 @03:07AM (#29948058)
    What happens if people start setting their own balloons as decoys?
    • by Arimus ( 198136 )

      From the sumary:-
      and accompanied by DARPA representatives

      Which means unless you have a few spare DARPA staff hanging around you might have problems with the authenticity part...

  • Unless a technological approach using sattellites, automated analysis of flikr photos etc.. quickly wins out then presumably the ballons will end up being seen by some people aware of the contest. So suppose you have seen a balloon and wish to use that knowledge to claim part of the prize. What do you do?

    Well what you want to do is find a group of other people who have located the other balloons and agree to pool your info in exchange for shares of the prize. Importantly nothing in the rules prevents
  • It's obvious now that the government not only knows that aliens exist, but that it also knows they are large, rotund, crimson and warlike - and they're on their way!!!

  • You know, at first, I thought this was going to be some valid balloon chase, where we would be finding balloons that had actually been released into the atmosphere, until I read "...and accompanied by DARPA representatives.". Er, how is this a balloon "hunt"?!? What the fuck is the point in finding balloons DARPA already knows the location to?

    Gee, I just love paying taxes for shit like this. Makes paying thousands for finding the gazillionith obscenely-large-prime-number(EFF) look like a Warren Buffet in

    • Er, how is this a balloon "hunt"?!? What the fuck is the point in finding balloons DARPA already knows the location to?

      Your geek license has been suspended, please hand over your card at the door. You will be eligible to regain your license in 8 weeks upon passing a new Imagination Test.

  • Strange that nobody has mentioned it yet, but I guess it's a good bet that there will be hundreds of red balloons rising on Dec 5. Besides the obvious "because we can" motive, if you are after the prize money, it makes sense to launch a few decoys the location of which is only known to yourself. Even a few of those and the contest is no longer about spotting the balloons, but about picking the correct 10 out of the confirmed sightings.

    It would have made a lot more sense to launch the balloons before announc

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