When Renee Garcia, Giselle Walter and Robert Reid, who work for Boulder's Freewave Technologies, agreed to participate in HackCU last week, they weren't really sure what to expect.
Freewave makes ultra-rugged radios that are designed to function in deserts, on mountaintops and in oil fields, where there is, unbelievably, no internet and no cellphone connection.
It would be the company's first hackathon. To interact with super-bright, aspiring computer scientists and engineers who are used to lightning-fast Wi-Fi and unlimited bandwidth was daunting to these mid-career professionals.
But they had forgotten how much kids love radios.
"We literally had a swarm of people at our table," said Walter. "We ran out of hardware almost immediately. People were really excited to get their hands on our radios."
Freewave is 25 years old and was launched before most of the students at the hackathon were born.
And that was the point. Freewave has a new radio, one that is able not only to transmit data collected from remote sensors, monitors and video cameras via a secure network, but one that now can analyze and make computations at the farthest edge of these networks.
Older networks required that data be sent to the cloud or a main office after it was collected, and it was there that the data processing and decision-making occurred.
But that cost their clients — oil companies, public safety agencies, U.S. military units and agricultural co-ops — precious time and millions of dollars.
With this new "thinking" radio, the plan is to find out what other great apps it might be capable of running. It is based on a programming platform that even non-engineers can use to write programs that run the apps.
Known as the ZumIQ, the product has been in beta testing with Freewave's industrial clients for much of the past year. But the company wanted to see what the kids thought.
Ten teams at the hackathon jumped at the chance to work on Freewave's challenge.
Among them was a group of four friends — all graduate students, all of whom received their undergraduate degrees in India and who have been making the most of their time here in the U.S. at CU's engineering and computer science schools.
"We've been doing hackathons for quite some time," said Bhallaji Venkatesan, who will finish his master's degree in electrical engineering this spring. "But Freewave had exciting radios that could get access to the internet where there is none."
The challenge was to create an app that could improve the way emergency management agencies monitor and respond to disasters — in this case, the 2017 fires in California.
So Venkatesan and his colleagues set to work.
"During most disasters, you don't have good monitoring or good internet connections," he said.
Their solution was to design and program a system — in 24 hours — that utilized an infrared camera attached to a remote node atop a drone, which could safely monitor the fire, see the impacts and analyze the data, sending a stream of information continuously to others on the perimeter of the fire.
"What we did was quick and dirty," said Divya Sampath, who will also finish her master's degree in electrical engineering this spring.
But their programming and app caught the attention of the Freewave team. The company plans to give the quartet of young designers another hardware set so they can refine their design.
One of the reasons this young team likes to do hackathons is because the students can let their imaginations roll, free of commercial constraints and concerns about development costs.
"We look for a problem, look at the existing technology and find a way to leverage it to solve the problem," said Abhijit Suresh, who is in his second year of a doctoral program in computer science at CU.
However, the team was worried that the amount of data it was trying to transmit across the radio network would be too large, killing its idea. But Freewave's compression technology allowed everything to flow quickly.
"That was key," said Venkatesan.
Back at the office, Freewave Vice President of Engineering Patrick Lazar is committed to incorporating young technologists into his team. On the second floor, above the traditional maze of engineering cubicles, is an open floor space with big whiteboards, beanbags and a handful of recent university graduates and interns.
They, too, are helping Freewave bridge the distance between mature, industrial technology and the latest things, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and app development and licensing, which is a new business for Freewave.
Lazar agreed to move them upstairs because they have been trained to work together — a process that is hindered by cubicle walls.
"What I'm learning is that even people who don't know each other can collaborate," Lazar said. "They're taught to do this these days. That is a really good feeling."
Freewave engineer Garcia, who came out of academia to join Freewave, said universities are scrambling to turn out multi-skilled graduates who can work with older technologists with deep industry skills and find new ways to program and develop better apps, among other things.
"Tech companies are putting a lot of pressure on universities," she said. As a result, in part, the University of Colorado created a program that allows anyone with a four-year undergraduate degree to earn a second degree in computer science in just one additional year.
"There is a growing interest in it," she said.
Evidence is everywhere. Some 600 students participated in the hackathon, which attracted 18 corporate sponsors, including Freewave, Twitter, Zayo Group and the OppenheimerFunds.
Now in its fourth year, the CU event is one of more than 270 Major League Hacking events nationwide.
"It's been growing every year," said Conor Parrish, one of HackCU's organizers. "This is the most sponsors we've ever had."
For Freewave's Robert Reid, who, along with his colleagues, worked through the night with the students, the weekend was eye-opening, exhausting and deeply interesting.
"I'm still tired," he said, "but the whole thing makes me want to go back to school."