Newest Navy attack sub uses an Xbox controller to operate its periscope

US Navy

The newest Virginia-class attack submarine, the USS Colorado (SSN-788), was just commissioned in Providence, Rhode Island. The 15th Virginia-class sub to join the Navy fleet, it’s 377 feet in length and nuclear-powered. It has 130 men on board, can travel at 25 knots underwater, and includes two large missile tubes that can launch six Tomahawk missiles each.

It’s the fourth Navy ship named the Colorado, dating back to a three-masted steam frigate that fought in the Civil War.

It also includes something you might find in your living room that sailors will use to operate the sophisticated periscopes – an Xbox controller.

The periscopes in the submarine are not like the ones you see in the movies. Periscopes on Virginia-class subs have two photonic masts that can swivel through 360 degrees on telescoping arms. High-resolution cameras display their images on several monitors in the state-of-the-art control room; the helicopter-style joysticks the Navy is currently using just weren’t cutting it.

The Navy commissioned feedback on the control systems from several junior officers. “What can we do to make your life better?” Lt. J.G. Kyle Leonard, the USS John Warner’s assistant weapons officer, asked. “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.”

Lockheed Martin tested various control systems at its super-secret research lab, dubbed Area 51, near Washington D.C. It’s not just video game joysticks – Lockheed Martin has been experimenting with off-the-shelf technology like multi-touch tables, tablets, Kinect, and Google Earth to advance the systems already aboard a submarine

It turns out that many of the sailors, intuitively familiar with using a video game controller, could figure out how to operate the periscope within minutes. The current photonic mast system and imaging control panel costs approximately $38,000. An Xbox controller? About thirty bucks.

“That joystick is by no means cheap, and it is only designed to fit on a Virginia-class submarine,” said Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub. “I can go to any video game store and procure an Xbox controller anywhere in the world, so it makes a very easy replacement.”

Video game controllers are one of many innovations the Navy is using as it transitions into the 21st century. It’s already using virtual-reality simulators to train sailors, and exploring technology like 3D printing and robotic underwater drones. “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,” said Eichenlab.

Or perhaps what they grew up with blasting aliens, scoring touchdowns, and exploring dungeons as a teenager.

Updated on March 17: Added information about Colorado joining the fleet.