Sunday, 22 October 2017
News Tech

US’ Latest Nuclear Subs Use Xbox Controllers for Navigation


The US Navy has a growing fleet of Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines. They are among the most advanced war machines in the world, running north of $2.5 billion apiece. At nearly 400 feet long with reactors capable of 30 MW, these subs can operate non-stop around the world, carrying dozens of missiles and nuclear warheads. They are so well designed, many are expected to be in service in the 2070s. With all that fancy, super-expensive military tech, you’d expect the navy to want the absolute best control systems. And for that, they’ve turned to Xbox 360 controllers.

Periscopes are, for good reason, the most iconic piece of these sub-surface terrors. While they were once hand-operated, as we see in older, Cold War-era films, modern subs like the Virginia class have an all-digital system. These allow navigation to share their view with as many other screens as they need to. Controlling all that hardware took a lot of complex machinery, though, and the scopes used specialized controllers that ran almost $40,000.

“I can go to any video game store and procure an Xbox controller anywhere in the world, so it makes a very easy replacement,” Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub of the USS Warner told The Virginian-Pilot.

Credit: Virginian-Pilot/Navy

That’d be the understatement of the century. Official Xbox 360 controllers are reliable, able to stand up to tens of thousands of hours of play, and they run from $20 to $40 — and that’s even avoiding the dirt-cheap, bargain-bin knockoffs. That is literally a 1 to 2,000 times less expensive. And, because the 360 was so ubiquitous, many are at least loosely familiar with the controller. That translates to a much shorter training time, saving thousands more there, too.

I dunno about you, but for me, this is a little creepy. Hypothetically, Virginia class sub gets into about with someone else. The crew has to deploy some missile and, for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s just one regular-old rocket and that hits a single plan and a single pilot. Wouldn’t it be weird if that person died, at least in part, because of a video game controller? I mean I’m no Jack Thomson fan, but when we start making our war machines compatible with gaming gear, Call of Duty gets a little too on-the-nose.

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