Bringing it Full “Sphere”: How a Special Ops-Inspired Orb Brought Us New Talent from Boise State
Willowview Consulting (WVC) has worked with the U.S. Special Operations community since 2008--as both a Science & Technology Advisor to the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and Systems Engineers for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) at Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). If that felt like a lot of acronyms to you… welcome to the world of defense!
With over a decade of experience tackling the hard engineering problems that face the special operations community, the WVC team has seen certain gaps and capability needs that repeat like Groundhog’s Day.
One of those gaps found an inspiring new solution through a unique source--not a defense industry giant or a government-funded lab, but a team of five students at Boise State University.
Bonding with Boise State
WVC is based out of Eagle, Idaho, which is just around 10 miles away from Boise State University. When asked how WVC’s Founder Layne Lewis was first connected with BSU, Ryan Kahre laughed and said, “Who knows? Layne knows everyone.”
Kahre, a mechanical engineer at WVC, said that this story all started when Lewis told her WVC team that they were going to be sponsoring a Senior Engineering Capstone Project at the University.
The program is a “two-semester culminating activity that brings students’ foundational and theoretical learning together in a hands-on, problem-solving effort,” according to the BSU website.
With a small sponsorship of approximately $1,000 from each supporting company, BSU puts a team of about 5 engineering students on the presented problem and they get a full calendar year to work on it.
“So we brainstormed ideas on what type of problem we wanted to present,” Kahre said. He and the WVC leadership had a list of ideas, but ultimately landed on a tactical problem that they’d seen time and time again in their special operations work.
It was tangible. It was important. And, it was cool.
Circling the Problem
Special Operators face the most imminently dangerous and combustible situations in war. A key tenet of the TALOS program, which was supported by several WVC engineers, was to fully protect those operators as they “go through the door” into unknown and likely dangerous situations.
But the question was often asked: what if the first entity through the door didn’t have to be a human?
This concept led to the WVC pitch for the BSU engineers: to develop a man-packable tactical sphere that could be thrown by an operator into an austere environment and then remotely operated to gather and relay intelligence.
If that sounds complicated, you’re not alone. It’s a complex problem, but one that Willowview’s VP of Operations, Scott Schoeffel, who himself is a former Navy Special Operator, thought would be an ideal challenge for the dedicated team at BSU.
The idea at its core was to give operators eyes and ears (and more) on the ground before putting a human life at risk. The UGV would be removed from a pack and thrown into a room, down a hall, or over a wall to provide an initial look at the area. If conditions allowed, the sphere could then be remotely piloted to explore the space, all the while streaming vital information back to the operator.
All together, 10 companies were selected to pitch projects to the students. “Of the 10 projects, I would argue that the one for WVC was the most interesting and most applicable,” said former BSU student Jim Shaver.
Shaver said that the WVC project was his first choice, and he was thrilled to be one of the five students selected for the WVC team. “I worked on it for a whole year and didn’t get bored. The challenges were so interesting, and I learned quite a bit about what working for an engineering company would be like.”
And we called Shaver a “former” BSU student because he’s now a current employee at WVC.
It’s a Great Recruiting Tool
Jim Shaver grew up in an inventive household--his father is a patent attorney, so he saw the impact of creators all of the time. “It interested me how one to two people could invent something original,” he said.
He always gravitated the most to the mechanical inventions. “I was always interested in cars,” he said, still a big fan of Ferrari F1 Racing.
So it was no surprise when he chose to go to Boise State to get his Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering, and ultimately ended up on the WVC Senior Engineering Capstone Project with a great team of four other student engineers.
“On the whole, our team was really great,” Shaver said when asked about his team’s compatibility. “Everybody had different strengths that made them better at certain elements of the project.”
Kahre echoed the sentiment about the BSU team. “This group of students, this team, had no problem presenting to groups of 3 or 4 different engineering companies. Their ability to communicate their designs and their intent was superior to what I’d seen from students before.”
And Shaver clearly impressed among his peers. He submitted his resume to WVC in October of 2019--still two months before the project would end (and before he would graduate). They didn’t have an opening at the time, but both parties were clearly hopeful to make it work in the long run.
A Junior Mechanical Engineer position did open up not long after Shaver’s graduation, and he was an immediate fit for the position.
“Sponsoring a project like this is a great recruiting tool,” Kahre said while discussing the benefits to WVC. “One of the best presenters on the BSU team works for us now.”
Shaver is enjoying his new position with WVC. “I have a brain that likes to be occupied, so the fact that we’re working on 3-4 things at the same time really strikes a chord with me and I really enjoy that workflow.”
"I believe that part of our role in industry is to help guide and mentor the next generation of engineers and problem solvers. What better way than to give a small team a real problem for a real customer that will help inform a solution that gets fielded."
The End Game
While the hiring of Shaver was a huge unexpected perk for WVC, the results of the project were also a success.
Over the course of the year, Kahre and the WVC team checked in multiple times through milestone meetings, requirements questions, and just general guidance.
A key tenet of the design is the arced support structure inside the shell, which disperses the impact forces throughout the strong aluminum chassis. By including this feature in the design of the robot, the electronics survived any abuse the team tested on the outer shell.
But the real moment of truth came with the final testing and delivery of the project--a real, working robotic solution to the problem. They tested it by dropping it, throwing it, and driving it around. And it worked!
“We were really impressed by their ability to actually do the project,” Kahre said. “It was like a Research and Development (R&D) project to see what this could turn into.”
Another benefit for sponsoring companies is that they own the end result of these Capstone Projects. The SOF Orb is currently sitting in an office at WVC, but that’s likely not the end of its story.
“We selected this product because we saw potential follow-on for development by WVC,” Kahre said. But Layne Lewis, WVC’s Founder and President, sees even greater value in participation in these projects.
"I believe that part of our role in industry is to help guide and mentor the next generation of engineers and problem solvers,” Lewis said. “What better way than to give a small team a real problem for a real customer that will help inform a solution that gets fielded."
Stay tuned to WVC for updates on this project and our other growing partnerships in the defense (and agricultural) industries...