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Rapid Equipping Force Pushes Innovation to Tactical Edge
By Dan Parsons


Members of the Rapid Equipping Force operate robots used by U.S. troops in combat zones.

FORT BELVOIR, Va. —
When Maj. Shannon McCrory was in Afghanistan, a private came to him with a problem: He and fellow soldiers had myriad electronic gadgets that required USB ports to charge but lacked any such jacks in their battlefield accommodations.

Mere hours later, McCrory’s Rapid Equipping Force Expeditionary Laboratory had constructed a working prototype of a universal adapter for a standard Army battery that would accept the chord for the private’s laptop, iPod or anything that had a USB cable.

“The next day that private showed back up with a bunch of his buddies and they all wanted them,” McCrory, chief of current operations for the REF, told National Defense Nov. 20.

“Almost overnight, the [REF scientists] had made 100 of these things and sent them back out to the unit. ... Now there are thousands of them. That was just from some idea a private cooked up.”

McCrory’s story is an example of the tactical-edge innovation the REF is trumpeting after 10 years in existence.

During a "10th Anniversary Open house" at REF headquarters, officials said the organization has come a long way since they were first asked to help fill urgent equipment gaps in the field, such as bomb and sniper countermeasures.

REF officials touted the mobile lab as it helps engineers work more closely with troops who use their products. Each lab is outfitted with a camera and monitor that allows engineers to consult with other personnel anywhere in the world in near-real time.

Two such mobile labs exist. One is in Afghanistan and the other was on display at Ft. Belvoir, but will be back in the war zone within a week. The size of a shipping container, it is a fully stocked engineering and prototype manufacturing lab powered by a 35 KW generator hardly audible inside its climate controlled shell.

Two civilian engineers from Exponent accompany the lab in theater, which is overseen by military personnel from the REF like McCrory.

Westley Brin, an REF civilian product manager, used a similar example as the USB adapter to explain the mobile lab’s effectiveness.

The Mine Hound, an improvised explosive device detection robot, came to the Army with a proprietary battery, requiring a soldier to carry specific power supplies for it. When the issue was noted, REF engineers at the mobile lab got to work designing a solution. Six hours later, they had a prototype and eventually were able to build 30.

“We put them out in the field and can get constant feedback,” Brin said. “In this case, we found out it almost doubled the battery life of the robot. Then we take that idea and kick it back home.”

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization has approved funding for 2,000 refined Mine Hound battery adapters based on the REF mobile lab's design.

The REF was originally established in 2001 when troops needed a way to safely search caves in Afghanistan, said Edward Jozwiak, a REF spokesman. Since then it has stuck to its goal of identifying capability gaps and filling them with commercially available or rapidly developed technologies. To meet REF standards for rapid deployment, the solution must be ready for fielding within 90 to 180 days.

The REF has supplied suite of counter-IED technologies, sniper detection and identification systems and several generations of robots.

“But at this point we feel all the low hanging fruit is gone,” Jozwiak said. “The easy solutions have been found.”

The next challenge for the REF, officials said, is to stay relevant. Accordingly, many of the technologies now being fielded are applicable to multiple operational environments, said REF officials.

On display at Ft. Belvoir was the latest slate of technologies that will be fielded in Afghanistan. They include a commercial Bobcat earth-mover outfitted with mine-clearing rollers and a robotic drive system called the Minotaur. It is designed for route clearance on remote, narrow mountain roads in Afghanistan. It could work, however, on difficult-to-access roads anywhere in the world.

“The IED threat is now one that has proliferated worldwide,” Jozwiak said. “So many of the technologies are as useful in the Pacific as they have been in the Middle East.”

Photo Credit: Army

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