The Rapid Temporal Survey (RATS) explores the faint, variable sky. Our observations search a parameter space which, until now, has never been exploited from the ground. Our strategy involves observing the sky close to the Galactic plane with wide-field CCD cameras. An exposure is obtained approximately every minute with the total observation of each field lasting around 2 h. In this paper, we present the first six epochs of observations which were taken over 5 yr from 2003–08 and cover over 31 deg2 of which 16.2 is within 10° of the Galactic plane. The number of stars contained in these data is over 3.0 × 106. We have developed a method of combining the output of two variability tests in order to detect variability on time-scales ranging from a few minutes to a few hours. Using this technique, we find 1.2 × 105 variables – equal to 4.1 per cent of stars in our data. Follow-up spectroscopic observations have allowed us to identify the nature of a fraction of these sources. These include a pulsating white dwarf which appears to have a hot companion, a number of stars with A-type spectra that vary on a period in the range 20–35 min. Our primary goal is the discovery of new AM CVn systems: we find 66 sources which appear to show periodic modulation on a time-scales less than 40 min and a colour consistent with the known AM CVn systems. Of those sources for which we have spectra of, none appears to be an AM CVn system, although we have 11 candidate AM CVn systems with periods less than 25 min for which spectra are still required. Although our numbers are not strongly constraining, they are consistent with the predictions of Nelemans et al.