By Mr. Stephen Rochette (USACE)November 20, 2008
FORT POLK, La. - There is no one better to provide feedback on military equipment and technologies than the end user, the Soldier.
This concept has been a focus for the Field Assistance in Science and Technology organization, which connects the Soldier to the vast network of labs and research centers of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. FAST maintains a presence at 23 locations, specifically at every combatant command, corps headquarters and each of the training centers.
The FAST team at the Joint Readiness Training Center, led by Tom Theaux and Lt. Col. Carl Simon, is especially close to Soldiers. Every month, brigade-sized units rotate through JRTC prior to deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan for training and exercises.
The following scenario is a textbook example of why FAST maintains a presence at JRTC. It started when an engineer from the RDECOM Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate introduced the team to a new suicide vest detection system. Theaux and Simon thought the technology had the potential to save lives.
"We thought there would be interest in the system because of its potential to identify suicide bombers. It uses a variety of technologies and appeared to have some utility for the military operations," explained Simon.
The FAST team explained the technology and its capabilities to leaders from an incoming unit who agreed to try out the system during training. Soldiers liked the system and eventually chose to deploy it.
This process has played out numerous times with other technologies as the JRTC FAST team has created a strong link between its parent organization, RDECOM and Soldiers going through training.
"Because of the nature of the mission and the access to Soldiers at JRTC, the team there is in a unique position to get the feedback necessary to assess technologies," said Jim Gibson, director of FAST. "They\'ve been highly effective in connecting Soldiers to the Army science and technology community."
JRTC FAST uses a variety of methods to get the feedback. After each training rotation, the team meets with senior non-commissioned officers from JRTC to get opinions about technologies injected into the training. During training, some Soldiers spend time as mock-casualties in the personnel equipment holding areas, which has proven to be a valuable chance to gather data.
"Because Soldiers have downtime when they're in the PEHA, it's a natural opportunity for us to get information," said Simon. "So we set up a trailer nearby where Soldiers can take web surveys - it's fast, simple and immediate information for our use."
JRTC FAST strives to gain feedback whether it's positive or negative.
"For us, a good result is getting honest opinions about the technology and equipment we inject into training rotations here. Even if it turns out to be bad, it's important to find out sooner rather than later to avoid pursuing something that isn't useful," said Theaux.
The feedback from Soldiers at JRTC has helped the FAST team make recommendations on a wide variety of technology and equipment.
"Our office has worked to provide input on equipment ranging from t-shirts to body armor," said Theaux.
One of the recent technologies tested at JRTC is speech to speech translation, which is a software program that allows Soldiers to speak a phrase while the program translates and voices the phrase in the chosen language.
Other technologies with FAST input include cultural relations software programs developed by the Army Research Laboratory as well as the Soldier Wearable Acoustic Targeting System, which helps Soldiers detect snipers. Many of the technologies have deployed or have undergone improvements as a result of the feedback.
In addition to working on technologies meant for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, JRTC FAST undertakes projects to improve training conditions at JRTC. They are now helping to develop ground control robots that can be used to move mannequin targets in the training battlefield. This will significantly improve the realism compared to a stationary target.
Simon added the FAST approach in many ways mimics practices in the business world and should be replicated.
"Private industry does extensive customer research when determining which products to develop and send to market," said Simon. "It's a concept we've really pushed here and we need to continue to do more of it in the Army acquisition community."
(FAST is an element of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command)