Each one of the US Navy’s Virginia-class submarines costs about $ 2.6 billion. So, it should come as no surprise that it contains a lot of custom, high-end electronics and military hardware. The Navy is looking to save a little money on future submarines, and make them a bit easier to operate, by ditching some of that fancy custom technology in favor of a game console controller. According to Lockheed-Martin, the US government is in the process of outfitting Virginia-class submarines with Xbox 360 controllers to control the periscope.
Unlike older subs, the Virginia-class vessels have a “photonic mast,” which is a fancy way of saying there’s a digital camera instead of a single-viewer rotating periscope. Operators can use the digital camera to check out what’s going on above water on multiple displays. However, the control mechanism, a complicated joystick called the “photonic mast handgrip and imaging control panel,” was considered clunky and unpleasant by Naval officers. It took several hours of training just to learn how to use the device, and each one cost the Navy about $ 38,000. The Xbox 360 controller, however, costs $ 40.
The Xbox 360 controller, which Microsoft unveiled in 2005, has dual analog sticks, a D-pad, four front buttons, two shoulder buttons, two triggers, and a start/select/Xbox button cluster in the middle. Apparently, that’s all you need to control a multi-million dollar digital periscope on a multi-billion dollar nuclear-powered submarine. Based on the images provided by Lockheed, it looks like the Navy is sticking with the wired USB version of the controller, which makes sense given the application.
The idea to switch to gaming peripherals comes from Lockheed-Martin’s classified research lab in Manassas, Virginia, which is lovingly referred to as “Area 51.” Engineers and officers work together at this facility to find new uses for commercial hardware in the military. That could include hardware like the 360 controllers, Kinect, or a touch-screen tablet, but also consumer software like Google Earth. The cost of the Xbox controller was part of the reason for the switch, but it’s also easy to use. No one liked the clunky joystick, and many new sailors already know how to use an Xbox 360 controller when they arrive. They just need to learn the button mappings, so to speak.
The Navy currently has 13 Virginia-class nuclear submarines to outfit with gamepads. Six new subs are already in various stages of production, and as many as 29 more might be built before a new vessel is ready for production in about 20 years.