Phil Hauck, Envision Board member and Economic Transformation/Artificial Intelligence Signals Team

We all know where the infamous Chinese spy balloon ended up – in the Atlantic, off the coast of South Carolina. And now we all know it came from China, as suspected. But who actually tracked that balloon back to its origins and proved it had been launched in China? A little Wisconsin company being nurtured right here in Green Bay, at Titletown Tech, the innovative partnership between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft.

As reported recently in Business News, a Delafield, Wisconsin firm called Synthetaic used high-level data processing and sophisticated algorithms to track the confounding balloon back to its launch in China. The 45-employee company is funded and supported by Titletown Tech here in Green Bay but physically located in Delafield. CEO Corey Jaskolski explained the thought process that launched the investigation: “I know the balloon was in South Carolina because it was shot down off the coast on February 4. What if I pull all the data in that date range over all of South Carolina – would I be able to find the balloon? I imputed a badly hand-drawn picture of the balloon and in, like two minutes, I actually found it.”

“Once we found it,” he explains in the Business News article, “we could run the wind models backward – so then I knew not only where it was, from satellite data, but could actually calculate the altitude of the balloon.” When his team had traced the balloon backward, as far as Canada, they had to change course, as they could no longer find it. “We [had] scaled [our software] so it could work over an entire state,” he said.  “So, we asked ourselves, ‘What about running it over a huge swath of the world at once — could we do that?’” From there, Jaskolski said, the team downloaded all the satellite data from all of China, South Korea, North Korea, Japan and the Asian Islands over the weeks in question.

“We had no idea when the balloon was launched,” Jaskolski said.  “All we knew is that, on January 31, we had it sitting in Canada.” They had no idea how long the balloon had been airborne. Five days? Fifteen days? “We ended up having this huge cross-section of time and space. We downloaded well more than 100 terabytes of satellite data (from Planet Labs).” He explained that it would have taken several weeks to search across that much data with a regular AI, even with a big array of servers. Using their own software product, RAIC (pronounced “rake”), it was a different story. RAIC, he explained, is “now looking for things in what we call RAIC space, which is the pixels — a representation of the imagery. I was surprised when we found it.”

Once the team located the balloon in Asia, Jaskolski, said they reverted back to wind models, and “we found it all the way back to the launch source.” Jaskolski said RAIC’s new feature that can search on a global scale in just a few minutes was the “force multiplier” that allowed the Synthetaic team to track the balloon. Synthetaic’s process was the first to track the balloon itself, not just its expected path based on weather projections. “I think what we offer is an interesting alternative [to government tracking],” he said, “because we use commercial satellite data. This wasn’t done on top secret networks – this was done with commercial data.  And the implication is — what else can we find in the data?  But also, what else can people find about us?”

Read the article in Business News here.