Friday, September 22, 2017

US Navy to Use X-Box Controllers on Most Advanced Subs

It's safe to say that only a very tiny portion of the population has actually been in a modern submarine so what we think we know is heavily influenced by Hollywood.  Depending on your age, your first thought is probably either something with tons of analog gauges and dials from vintage movies, or something with computer monitors from a more recent flick.  The fast attack submarine USS John Warner is called "the Most Advanced" submarine in the fleet, and is filled with sophisticated computers with flat-screen monitors to replace much of the conventional instruments and gauges. In those old submarines movies, the periscope was a single optical tube that would be raised above the surface so that a submerged submarine could get a look around.  One man at a time could look.  In the John Warner, those days are gone:
It's been replaced with two photonics masts that rotate 360 degrees. They feature high-resolution cameras whose images are displayed on large monitors that everyone in the control room can see. There's no barrel to peer through anymore; everything is controlled with a helicopter-style stick. But that stick isn't so popular.
The stick is a system designed by defense giant Lockheed Martin - LockMart, as we call them - and it's a $38,000 box.
"The Navy got together and they asked a bunch of J.O.s and junior guys, 'What can we do to make your life better?' " said Lt. j.g. Kyle Leonard, the USS John Warner's assistant weapons officer, referring to junior officers and sailors. "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?  A video game controller, Microsoft's X-Box controller, something very similar to the Logitech Rumblepad that I just added to my CNC milling machine.
The Xbox controller is no different than the ones a lot of crew members grew up playing with. Lockheed Martin says the sailors who tested the controller at its lab were intuitively able to figure out how to use it on their own within minutes, compared to hours of training required for the joystick.

The Xbox controller also is significantly cheaper. The company says the photonic mast hand grip and imaging control panel that cost about $38,000 can now be replaced with an Xbox controller that typically costs less than $30.
(Photo source)

The crew, after all, is primarily young men who grew up in a digital world playing video games. What could be more natural than a game controller?
The John Warner at her public commissioning ceremony.  Wikimedia photo.
The Navy says that the system has gone through extensive testing over the past two years and that the Xbox controller will be included as part of the integrated imaging system for Virginia-class subs beginning with the future USS Colorado, which is supposed to be commissioned by November.
Just a nifty little story.  Caught my eye because of the similarity to the hardware I've just started using.


  1. $38,000 for a $30 part is called a "bargain" at the Pentagon. I have stories. I may be prosecuted for sharing them. But it isn't pretty. DRAIN THE SWAMP!

  2. I think I understand the notion that R&D costs, and the costs involved in producing a small number of items for a very limited market can make those items expensive, but $38,000? That is criminal. A device which permits operation via _mind control_ might be reasonable at that price, but for a _joystick_ operated control? Good grief. Does a tech-rep from LockMart have to live aboard the ship in case the box ever goes down?

    1. Congress defines how R&D costs are allocated across a weapons program. THAT is why the part cost @$38,000. Because when you buy it, you are paying for the R&D on the reactor and the pressure hull and the flow noise and the rest of the sub as well.

      And by the way, that Xbox controller is made in Red China. Do ya think that they might have some way of making it not work properly in certain situations? Or do you think that they provided ALL the detailed programming info for the firmware and such on that box? Or don't you really care?

    2. I was going to comment on this last night, but didn't. My second thought was that I haven't actually worked on a military contract for 20+ years and - maybe - it might have changed.

      Without knowing the first thing about that box, I'll bet I know why it cost $38,000. The typical MilSpec "box" I had to work on had a wheelbarrow full of Mil Standards imposed on it, most which conflicted with each other in places. If they conflict, you build it to the most severe specs. If that's even possible. Instead of using components rated Commercial for "0 to 50C" (32 to 120F) like the X-Box controller, it was required to use parts rated at least -45 to 85C, and maybe -55 to 125C. In many cases, the exact parts used in the Commercial product don't exist in the higher temp ranges, so the thing has to be designed differently.

      The LockMart box was required to meet environmental and radio interference specs far, far more severe than commercial specs. It may have had to do that in a tight space. And it had to be tested for each and every one of those requirements. I wouldn't be surprised if it took close to a year to test the first box. All of those costs have to get recovered.

      The most remarkable thing about the X-Box controller is that someone in the Navy got it approved because a contractor simply can NOT do something like this by themselves.

      Mark, I thought about that, but I think the idea that anyone could say "it's on" and disable electronics inside the other guy's submarines is physically impossible. Yeah, I'm aware of some of the ELF stuff - at least what can be found in radio hobbyist magazines. AFAIK, it requires massive antennas and what you're saying requires hidden communications to something no bigger than your two hands held together. Inside a hermetically sealed metal can. If anyone can communicate by radio into a sealed metal can, under seawater, I think I'd pay to see that.

      Plus, the X-Box controller was chosen because it's off the shelf at the gadget store. If they had the foresight to bury code into a toy because someone might use it in a military application some time in the future, that's just remarkable. It would also be easy to find because anyone who wanted to check it could just run up to Best Buy and grab one.

  3. Several engineers where I work are aware when we design stuff that the user group is going to be the Xbox generation. We design accordingly. It's easier to get the younger engineers on board than it is to convince management. One of our EO/IR hand controllers is Nick and the Xbox controller as it is similar; we have to use that as the $30 doesn't meet the DO160 environmental qualification requirements, nor, more importantly, the EMI requirements for aircraft environment. 90% of the time it's probably good enough, but the one time you really need it and it fails......

    1. A side effect of everything else in the boat meeting DO160 is that one commercial system is probably safe. The rest of the boat is low enough on emissions that it probably doesn't interfere with the game controller, and likewise the rest of the boat is low enough in susceptibility that the game controller probably doesn't interfere with the boat.

      Again, the Navy has to approve this because no contractor can ever waive those requirements on their own.

  4. I was in the US Navy submarine force for a number of years, about 20-30 years ago. I am all for progress but am skeptical that all of the new gee whiz stuff is robust enough. (install the LCD monitors etc but keep the old stuff as backups, if you were to ask me) Back in the day, you are correct that we had a lot of analog equipment and "steam" gauges to run things. That stuff still works when it gets sprayed or submerged in seawater and/or when electrical power goes away (I've seen all that happen before just due to various accidents and things that happen in peacetime during submerged operations)
    I know I know, they have "Top Men. Top. Men." running the procurement show and all those LCD monitors etc that replaced the old stuff will still work fine underwater or when AC power is lost.

    1. Nothing electronic works without power. Can it be designed with backup power so that it works if the main AC goes offline? Yeah, for a while. Like any other "Uninterruptible Power Supply" you can buy.

      But it's a good point. Reliability engineering a product can only get you so far. The way to insure true survivability is redundancy and independence of the systems. Manned spaceflight has three independent versions of every system and they all have to be working at launch. I'd expect no less in a submarine.

      The electronics in a boat can be coated in environmental sealants to reduce the chance seawater would ruin them. But I know nothing of what's in a modern sub.

  5. On of the risks of using devices from the civilian world I exposure to malware etc. If the controllers are built in China guess what.. they'll eventually have malware programmed into them. And since they are plugged in to the ship they will have access to the ship systems. NOBODY sent to think about IT security till AFTER they get hacked.

  6. I think folks are arguing a moot point here: an Xbox controller is likely to be a generic term for such an item - like "Kleenex" for all facial tissues. If there isn't already an American company making a similar controller, there easily could be. Mark's somewhat ad hominem question about my caring that _actual_ by gosh Xbox controllers are made by the PRC is in poor taste. The Navy can certainly A) purchase similar controls made in America or B) allow bidding by American businesses on _making_ an equivalent controller. Even if one had to be designed from scratch (unlikely), it still wouldn't need to cost $38,000.

    The important take-away here (in my uniformed, ignorant-of-the-process opinion) is that it is obviously possible to use a lot of off-the-shelf technology to do what needs to be done, saving many millions of dollars of tax money in the process. And as much as the tech world seems to be in love with all things "Bluetooth", said devices could be hardwired and shielded in such a fashion as to be safe from affecting other devices _and_ from being affected - or influenced - by other devices/signals/Red Chinese mind control (although I think a Stuxnet type of attack on the system software involved would be much more likely).