FAST: Field Assistance in Science and Technology: Getting Soldiers What They Need

Article excerpt

WHEN the rubber meets the road, no one on earth knows more about what Soldiers need than Soldiers.

The Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command recognizes that and is using part of its Field Assistance in Science and Technology, or FAST, Program to gain better insight into the needs of Soldiers in combat.

Typically, each three-member FAST Science and Technology Assistance Team comprises an officer, NCO and civilian science advisor. A team's mission is easily stated: Find out what Soldiers need on the front lines, and give that information to the people who can fill that need.

"The key to the whole FAST STAT mission is to make sure we paint a good picture of the technology requirements the design engineer in the research and development labs can work on," said MAJ Mike Traxler, who served as a FAST STAT team leader in Iraq from April to August 2005.

"The point is that the guy who knows the most about his needs is the user. He's the technology expert. He can't design it, he's not the technician, he's not the engineer, but he has a better grasp than any of us will ever have," Traxler said.

Of course, the simplest-sounding mission is often the most difficult to achieve, especially when it revolves around the complex idea of communication.

This ability to translate Soldier needs to scientists and engineers far from the front lines takes weeks of intense training before deployment.

RDECOM is made up of eight national labs and engineering centers and nine international technology centers, and employs more than 17,000 civilian, military and contract personnel--all working to quickly get technology to Soldiers.

FAST STAT team members must familiarize themselves with RDECOM labs and their technology focuses before they can talk with Soldiers. RDECOM labs test, create and work to improve almost everything Soldiers eat, shoot, wear, sleep in, drive in or use to protect themselves.

"We represent everything from aviation to peanut butter. It's amazing how much we have to talk about," said MAJ Jay Ferreira, who was in Iraq as a FAST team leader from December 2004 to April 2005.

Once deployed, FAST STAT teams spend most of their time in Iraq with the troops, watching and listening. Team members must be on the ground--shadowing day-to-day maintenance jobs and going out on actual missions to see Soldiers and their equipment in action.

The FAST STAT key to success is accessibility to Soldiers.

"We hosted a lot of group discussions. We went to the different base camps and arranged to have a group of 30 to 50 Soldiers get together in a room. Then we spent a lot of time finding out what they need to conduct their operations and which technologies may be able to support them," Traxler added.

Detection and detonation of improvised explosive devices is a major discussion topic brought to FAST STAT teams. Soldier suggestions have led RDECOM scientists and engineers to produce an extending arm with a better gripping mechanism for the TALON robot, often used to search for improvised explosive devices. Soldiers asked for the arm extender to allow the TALON to "look" into truck windows.

"When the Soldiers get something like that, it improves both safety and morale. They appreciate that someone is paying attention to their mission challenges," Ferreira said.

Besides gathering information on the capabilities of current technologies, FAST STAT teams also provide new RDECOM technologies to a limited number of Soldiers to see how the technologies stand up outside the lab.

"This is one of the few times we can actually prove things out on the battlefield. Iraq is not a training center. So every time we provide prototypes and they come back broken, that's okay. Soldiers need to run the technology through all the paces, to allow us to find out whether it has merit for the future fight," Ferreira said. …