While campaigning in 2016, President Trump repeatedly called for modernizing our outdated and depleted military. Now, the Navy is integrating a truly modern device.
Advanced submarine periscopes historically relied on clunky, hard to find, and expensive joysticks. Now, after considerable testing, these joysticks will be replaced with off-the-shelf Xbox controllers.
When thinking of a submarine, one typically pictures it equipped with the traditional rotating tube periscope. That is, a single hanging tube for the navigator to peer out of. The periscope extends above sea level and offers one sailor a view of the surrounding area. This design, however, was replaced long ago with photonic masts capable of rotating 360 degrees. High-resolution cameras attached to the masts offer an entire control room an above-water view.
Virginia-class submarines, the Navy’s most advanced underwater vessels, typically come equipped with photonic mast hand grips designed by Lockheed Martin. The hand grips, which cost about $38,000 each, are considered clunky and unnecessarily heavy by many sailors. The hand grips are designed only for Virginia-class submarines, and would be impossible to replace if damaged in an emergency.
A better solution was not formulated until now.
“The Navy got together and they asked a bunch of [junior officers] and junior guys, ‘What can we do to make your life better?’” explained Lt. j.g. Kyle Leonard, who serves on the Virginia-class USS John Warner. “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.”
The solution was simple, and the expensive hand grips were replaced with off-the-shelf Xbox controllers which cost about $30 on average. Not only are Xbox controllers considerably cheaper than the Lockheed Martin hand grips, but most young sailors are already comfortable with video game controllers.
Another feature in favor of Xbox controllers is their ubiquity. The Lockheed Martin “joystick is by no means cheap, and it is only designed to fit on a Virginia-class submarine,” explained Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub, the assistant navigator on the USS John Warner. “I can go to any video game store and procure an Xbox controller anywhere in the world, so it makes a very easy replacement.”
After testing the Xbox controller, the Navy found that sailors were able to quickly adapt to the new technology. While it would take hours of training to learn how to operate the previous hand grips, sailors can become proficient with Xbox controllers in a matter of minutes, thanks to their intuitive inputs.
The Xbox controllers will be installed on all Virginia-class ships in operation. All new submarines, such as the USS Colorado currently under commission, will come equipped with Xbox controls.
Eichenlaub stated that this is part of a larger push from the Navy to modernize their vessels by integrating consumer technology that younger Americans are already comfortable with, such as touchscreen computers and virtual spaces.
“Ideally, what they want to see in 10 years down the road is, there’s basically a glass panel display with windows, and you can just pull a window of information, review that, push it off, bring in the next window,” Eichenlaub explained. “They want to bring in sailors with what they have at home on their personal laptop, their personal desktop, what they grew up with in a classroom.”
The added benefit: technology like this is, apparently, considerably less expensive.