The Navy Replaced A Sub's Controls With An Xbox Gamepad

The Navy Replaced A Sub's Controls With An Xbox Gamepad

Thanks to old movies and cartoons, we all know how periscopes work. A submarine extends a pole that breaks through the water's surface, and a series of reflective prisms shows someone down below what's happening on top. If those cartoons are to be trusted, you on the surface can generally see a giant magnified eye looking out the periscope, and shooting that image kills the sailor below.

Tech has evolved in the past century, and so have periscopes. Many subs don't have traditional ones at all. The latest subs from the Navy instead use something called a photonics mast. Like a periscope, it's a vertical pole, but it uses digital imaging sensors instead of just taking light in directly and piping it down. That means the sub's hull doesn't need such a big hole for a tube to pass through, and the operator can view the image and control the mast electronically from anywhere in the sub, while the periscope room on the other hand must be right below where the scope peeks out.  

Mast controls have one problem though. Navy personnel complained they were really heavy and clunky. And since the controls just send an electronic signal instead of moving a scope mechanically, surely the military could invent a device that takes less physical effort to manipulate. The Navy considered this, then realized that if we want to generate analogue signals to precisely rotate a virtual camera, comfortable handheld devices already exist for that.

We're talking about game controllers. The Xbox 360 controller, specifically (the military made this decision in 2017, when more modern controllers existed, but the 360 one is good enough and is famously durable). Most personnel on a sub already know how to use gamepads, so when they switched to them, training became incredibly easy. A $25 controller also costs a bit less than the traditional $38,000 sub controls—though this was just a side benefit, since $38,000 isn't a major expense for the military, certainly not aboard a $3 billion submarine.

Sadly for those who picture warfare as a game, we haven't yet hooked the Xbox controller to the sub's weapons systems. For now, firing the sub's nukes still takes more than just a pull of the right trigger. 

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Top image: US Navy

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