What’s the easiest and most effective way to control a submarine? Apparently, it’s with an Xbox controller. In the past, the U.S. Navy has used custom-built joystick controllers, which were not only expensive but also minimally responsive. Now, however, the U.S. Navy has decided to invest in the same controllers used for the Microsoft Xbox 360, essentially turning them into submarine controllers for sailors.
The Xbox controllers won’t be used to maneuver or steer the submarine itself. Rather, the U.S. Navy says they will be used for controlling the photonics masts. Periscopes play an important role in a submarine’s abilities, allowing it to view the surface of the water while remaining submerged. But the problem with traditional periscopes is that they only allow a single sailor to look through the viewport. Therefore, the U.S. Navy has upgraded its submarines with photonic masts that function like a digital periscope, allowing multiple sailors to view footage at the same time.
Previously, sailors were using a bulky joystick to control the photonic masts. Many complained, however, that wasn’t an effective control device. In response to these complaints, the U.S. Navy began looking at alternative control devices, thus leading them to the Xbox 360 controller.
“What can we do to make your life better?‘” said Kyle Leonard, a Lieutenant assistant weapons officer. “And one of the things that came out is the controls for the scope. It’s kind of clunky in your hand; it’s real heavy.”
When experimenting with the Xbox 360 controller, the U.S. Navy found that sailors were more comfortable and efficient using them when compared to the traditional joystick controller. Furthermore, the Navy says that many sailors have played Xbox games in the past, so they are familiar with the controller layout. The controller’s natural design allows sailors to easily use it to control the submarine’s photonic mast.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of using the Xbox 360 controller in the Navy is the cost-savings benefits it offers. The joysticks previously used to control the photonic masts cost roughly $38,000 a piece. Assuming the Navy needs multiple controllers for multiple submarines, you can see how expensive they can be. The Xbox 360 controllers, on the other hand, cost just $30 a piece — a substantial savings considering the increased performance and versatility they offer as well.
The USS Colorado is the Navy’s first submarine fitted with the Xbox controllers. Assuming it goes according to plan, the Navy will likely add the Xbox controller to other submarines.