WARREN, Mich. -- "A Soldier walked in the door."

Far from the setup to a joke, this is how a new mission began for Scott Smith and the other engineers and scientists of the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force.

A design engineer for the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, Smith deployed in June 2015 for a tour at the REF's Afghanistan site for providing warfighters with quick engineering solutions to sometimes deadly problems.

"They walk in the door at the REF and tell you what their capability gap is," says Smith. "You rapid-prototype something for them, give it to them and they go use it on mission. There are no layers to go through to see what the Soldier actually needs. You get to talk directly to them."

Beginning as the Robotic Tiger Team, an initiative of the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army in 2002, what later became the REF originally operated out of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with the mission to "provide technology to fill capability gaps and to counter the highest priority threats."

As the Army's focus expanded to Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, the REF began fielding forward teams in Kuwait and Iraq, and eventually, Afghanistan.

Department of the Army Civilians like Smith respond to calls for volunteers to staff the REF for six months at a time, though they're occasionally extended for additional days. Smith's tour lasted eight months, and he returned in February 2016.

Every day, says Smith, is different, and can offer challenges large or small.

"A Soldier walked in the door," Smith said. "[He's from] a route clearance patrol, so they go out and they look for IEDs next to the road. Bad guys like to put them in culverts, so they have to inspect inside the culverts."

The route clearance patrol vehicle, a Mine Resistant Armored Protected vehicle, has an interrogation arm with a camera and claw on the end to inspect the culverts while providing a short standoff distance.

"But the camera was several feet off the ground [as installed], so they couldn't see into the small culvert," says Smith. "They'd have to get out of the truck to go and look, to go inspect."

The smaller culverts were inaccessible to the camera, which sat too high off the ground. With this problem in front of them, the brainstorming began, and Smith's team pulled together a quick solution.

"So the camera used to be on top," says Smith. "But then we put this air cylinder on the side of it and dropped the camera down, so now it was about two inches off the ground. They could now move it up forward, look into the culvert, and move the camera back to look at whether he wanted to use the claw or the interrogation [arm]. That was the best, because a Soldier could now stay inside the truck."

It was far from just another day at the office for Smith, but the real impact hit weeks later.

"We were giving a briefing to a sergeant major that had come in, and we had a system, a spare system," says Smith. "And he just stopped, looked at me, and said, 'That's a life saver.' "

That sergeant major had lost a Soldier a couple of years earlier to an IED blast that detonated while the Soldier was out of a vehicle and manually inspecting a culvert.

"At that point, it really hit us that we had done something really cool here," Smith said. "It was a fun project, but that was what had the most impact, I think."

Through his eight months with the REF, Smith worked on approximately 70 projects, and usually, more than a few at once.

"You have projects going in parallel," says Smith. "You could be working on four projects at once, you could have 11 different projects slowly being pushed forward."

Each project begins with a search through solutions that may already exist.

"There are two sides to the REF," Smith said. "One side is they'll buy commercial or government off-the-shelf items. But if it doesn't exist, it doesn't exist. Then they'll come to the lab, and that's when we make something to help with the particular capability gap."

The REF engineers weren't a stationary activity, either.

"We flew in helicopters pretty much weekly to different bases to interface with Soldiers, to get their capability gaps," says Smith. "We'd meet with them, tell them what the REF does, fly back to our base, design something up, take it back to them … stuff like that."

Smith returned as a TARDEC engineer upon leaving the REF, and the experience, he says, was well worth the time.

"I was in these Soldiers' shoes myself, not too long ago," Smith said. "So to be able to help them out, it's phenomenal."

------

The U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.