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U.S. Navy to use Xbox 360 controllers to operate periscopes aboard submarines (pilotonline.com)
319 points by richardboegli 66 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 209 comments

Former submariner here. My thoughts echo those of a ex-submariner group I'm a part of -- it makes sense across the board. It's 1) a cost saving measure, 2) WAY easier to get replacements, and 3) WAAAYY easier to train new people to use it safely and efficiently.

I'd have two big reservations about this.

1. The Virginia class was first commissioned in 2004, with a 33 year design life. The XBox 360 was first shown in public in 2005, with a design life of ...? Yup, it's consumer electronics, with a design life of much less than 33 years. Even though there are on the order of 80-100M of them in the wild, by and by XBox 360s and replacement parts will be getting scarce.

(If you think this is an exaggeration, consider the availability of spare parts today for a computer system commissioned 33 years ago, in 1984 — an original IBM PC XT, perhaps, or an original Macintosh, both of which were manufactured in — for the time — high volume. Things like 5.25" floppy disks, or a replacement M-series IBM keyboard with the original DIN plug, were once ubiquitous, but today they're rarities.)

2. A second concern is that these days everything comes with an embedded processor and an enterprising hostile entity might try to sneak malware on board a fast attack submarine via the periscope controller handset. (I've no idea what form such malware might take, or what it might accomplish, but that's not the point: it's that using cheap commercial handsets widens the threat surface of the submarine's sensor suite arbitrarily.)

Good points, but I think we can work around them.

1) As others have said xinput is pervasive as this point. If the Xbox 360 controller becomes hard to source then I'm sure a replacement xinput derived device will still be around. If not, it's a well documented standard and new devices can be made.

2) This leans on my first response. Xinput is the winner here, not the Xbox controller. If after testing they can't harden it then we have a lot of other options, up to and including a bespoke controller.

I guess what I'm saying is that video game controls are so much fun for a reason. They 'just work'. And while there is a little bit of dystopian sheen to seeing video games become the source for defacto tooling for war machines I'm always for a simplification of man/machine interactions.

> If the Xbox 360 controller becomes hard to source then I'm sure a replacement xinput derived device will still be around. If not, it's a well documented standard and new devices can be made.

First of all, I want to say I agree with you. That said, you didn't really refute GP's point.

The IBM XT was well documented, had many clones and alternatives, but still you can't find parts at most electronic stores 33 years later. Several decades is a very long time in consumer electronics.

One thing I'd point out is that the only relevant objections are things that are true about the XBox controller that aren't true about all the alternatives. One-off bespoke custom hardware at dozens of thousands of dollars a pop are not necessarily going to be better supported at these time scales, because even if you sign an iron-clad contract with an entity to do whatever maintenance you could dream up, they still have the "going out of business entirely" option. You also can't neglect the hours of training involved and all the other associated costs with bespoke solutions.

We're trying to solve the problem of how to point periscopes here, not solve the generalized problem that when it comes down to it, nobody really knows what 2027 is going to be like.

(By contrast, "this is a new vector for malware if the supply chain is not secured" is a valid concern because one presumes and/or hopes that bespoke military hardware is better controlled there. This is a solvable problem, but solving it eats into the cost advantage.)

Responding "the same problem exists with the custom hardware" isn't what everyone is replying with. Instead they keep going with the trope that it's an open standard and not realizing the example given was an open standard 33 years ago.

Further more, I agree with your parenthetical that the malware angle is the more important argument. I disagree that it's a solveable problem though, but I feel the Xbox controller isn't the reason it isn't solvable. Any platform can be hacked given sufficient motivation.

Honestly I think using these controllers are likely the best approach, but let's not pretend it doesn't have issues (it's just the it's the same issues or less cumbersome issues than alternatives).

This is an interesting debate, but I think it misses the most important point: cost.

The Navy can buy thousands of Xbox controllers for the cost of even a single bespoke controller. The US has on the order of 100 submarines. Replacement controllers for the lifetime of each submarine -- even multiplied by 10 -- is a hilariously small cost compared to the alternatives.

So buy 1,000+ Xbox controllers and keep them in a warehouse. Problem solved.

> buy 1,000+ Xbox controllers and keep them in a warehouse.

Yes, I was going to suggest this. It would solve the availability issue and reduce the malware issue. If it's replacing a $38,000 item, they could buy 1,265 extra per sub.

I can however find as many Atari controllers as I could ever need, both locally and online. When considering availability you can't discount the sheer _volume_ of the things that have been manufactured. A truly ubiquitous human input device like an XBox controller is going to be available for a good long time without much extra work. It's well tested against repeated abuse (source: I'm bad at XBox games) and there are millions of the things in existence.

Once you harden it sufficiently, do you have any cost savings?

> video game controls are so much fun for a reason

I'm really more of a keyboard guy. Sometimes a mouse.

> Once you harden it sufficiently, do you have any cost savings?

This is the worst-case scenario for what is a rather overblown concern in the first place.

> I'm really more of a keyboard guy. Sometimes a mouse.

Even when operating a submarine?

> Even when operating a submarine?

Exactly, use the correct controller for the correct scenario. Keyboard+mouse works for many games, but for games where you control vehicles (racing games, aircraft simulators, submarines), joystick controls just work better.

Also, let's not forget that Microsoft would probably help out with hardening the security of the controllers. It's not like the Navy would have to reverse engineer the controller to figure out how to make it more secure.

Even if you spend a ton of time and money hardening it, if the xbox-like game controller is more efficient and easier to train on, then you save there in training costs and improved operational effectiveness. This of course relies on an assumption that the current method of control is overly complicated and difficult.

The consumer hardware only needs to last 20 years. After that, the Navy can surely make their own, as any patents run out.

The Navy will need to write their own firmware anyway.

The US government has excluded itself (and its contractors) from being liable for patent infringement. See http://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=28... for details.

The xinput gamepad is a pervasive standard, with plenty of third party hardware implementations and wide software support across operating systems. Heck, even Chrome and Firefox have JS apis to access xbox controller input.

Eventually it will be surpassed, but it's far more available and supported than whatever they were doing before, and its simple enough to be easy to continue to manufacture.

Also, do we really think the military couldn't find someone to contract with to continue making them if they needed to? Knock offs are $20 on Amazon, they're very simple devices.

> Knock offs are $20 on Amazon, they're very simple devices.

And that goes right into cstross' second point...

Their point was very obviously not that we should buy the $20 knock-offs, but that building these devices is very simple and can be done cheaply.

1) I don't really understand this criticism - why would a bespoke milspec controller be any more likely to be around than a widely documented consumer controller?

Which do you think is easier to replace today, or get a manufacturer to remake: a model M from 1984, or a custom machine keyboard from 1984.

Hell, wind the back another 10 years - I worked in a hospital with a really old bit of kit. It was a Siemens EEG machine, and the keyboard was capacitive metal tabs. No travel at all - they simply registered when pressed by a finger but not other things (like a modern smartphone screen). I'd much rather dig up a common keyboard than one of those curios.

Is Microsoft going to be willing to share their original specs so you can build an identical controller years down the track? Given we're talking military here reverse engineering to remake wouldn't be acceptable.

You wouldn't need an identical controller, just one that has an identical line protocol. In this case it's a USB HID Device that prescribes to the XInput Hardware API. Logitech, Razer, and others already make compatible devices.

There have been third-party Xbox controllers almost since the console came out. No doubt ONE of them will gobble up a DoD contract to continue production if it's offered. (Former Submarine FT)

The military has been buying 360 controllers to do a bunch of different things and I'm sure MS has been providing them on contract and will continue to provide them because it's easy money.


Xinput is a pervasive standard at this point, to where there is a large market of third party controllers and software support in various linux distros as well as a JS api to access it in Chrome and Firefox.

As long as the military doesn't buy them on Amazon.com, yea they probably would. Escrow of technical and IP documents is pretty common in industry procurement, I'd imagine that it's even more common in procurement for defense.

Given it's military, they're very likely already sharing NOW.

Dude, it's Microsoft. Most of their business is to the government.

1. This is easily solved by buying enough supply of controllers right now to last for 33 years.

2. Are you sure the non-commercial version come from and doesn't have embedded processor, and how do you know it's really good quality and not just very expensive because of low quantity production?

"Lifetime buys" are a thing, and also can be expensive because you don't always have a good estimate when doing so. Either you buy too many and waste $ with excess stock, or you don't buy enough then 10 years later have to scrounge for more stock at higher prices, or come up with a replacement.

It's a tough problem.

Let's assume we actually get 50 Virginia class submarines (whims of Congress, and all that). Let's assume we need on average 3 controllers per year. That's a total of 5,000 XBox controller.

At $20 a piece, the pentagon has now spent $10,000. This is not what in military spending passes for excess $ :) Yes, the numbers might be somewhat off, and there's storage cost, but really - we're talking Pentagon here. The place of the infamous $640 toilet seat :) (I know, the price got reduced to $100. Still, on the scale of Pentagon procurement, a lifetime buy of XBox controllers is pretty trivial)

Not to mention making a controller would be trivial for a DoD contractor. I feel like some people in this thread want it both ways. If they see a contractor reinventing the wheel by making a custom xbox-like controller for god knows how much money they'll get criticized. If the DoD buys off-the-shelf parts then they'll get criticized as well.

I think when its come to HIDs like controllers or keyboards, off the shelf is fine. We can have the exact same conversation for Dell keyboards or 3rd party keyboards and mice.

There is hardly a thing, like a wasted hardware in the military. For such a purchase you do not make a guess and buy. You make a guess, multiply it by 3 and then buy. Cost saved by going for customer grade electronics vs. specialized will easily justify this. You will still be saving lots of money.

I didn't say you wouldn't save compared to some other solution. I said it's not as simple as just buying. You'll have loss no matter your estimate.

And as I said to a sibling comment below, you can't always just buy excess. You have budgets you need to stay under, to support everything you handle.

Consumer grade is not the same as buying from the same places we buy, either. You have to use approved vendors, which add their own markup. What you or I may buy for $5 might only be available for $25.

"There is hardly a thing, like a wasted hardware in the military." Care to share what hollywood movie this is coming from?

[*] https://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html

mysterydip, you're doing a lot of posting and not listening to some of these very good answers.

First. No, lifetime buys are not always a tough problem. While they can be tough, consumer grade electronics have to be the best product to predict lifetime buys on due to clear end of life and good data on mean time to failure.

Second. Let's do some math. Let's assume a 30 year operation. There are 48 of this sub planned. Let's say for some reason they go through 3 a year. At $30 each, we're looking at $130k to outfit the entire fleet of subs for their operational lifetime. Or, we could buy about 3.5 of the existing joystick, not even enough to outfit the 4 subs that are already in operation.

Lastly, it is likely that a 3rd party would take over the manufacture of these devices when they end of life anyway. It's a popular consumer electronic after all. The government would just buy a bunch then, reducing lifetime warehouse costs and getting better data to predict the lifetime buy.

It's probably also worth comparing to the cost of a bespoke solution. If it takes two engineers six months to design and test, you'll have spent more on their salaries alone than on your projected lifetime buy (which itself doesn't even account for any bulk discount).

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply it's always a problem, or even in this specific case. Just that it can be, something for people to think about.

The problem comes when you start going through 3 a year, but then say 5 years down the road you start going through 15 a year. There could be a premature wear issue, some bug, an update from a related system, whatever. But you can't always plan for those, and it can come back to bite you. And whomever has the inventory at that time can have quite a markup.

For what it's worth, I think this controller idea is excellent.

Next to the cost of a submarine I believe "excess stock" inefficiencies will be unnoticeable. Probably compared to the cost of custom hardware, too.

The issue is there's a difference between where the money comes from (capex vs opex for a simplified and incorrect example). Your support areas don't get the same budget as your construction areas. And when money runs out for the year you still have to keep thinngs running.

And while I agree that excess stock costs pale in comparison to a sub or boat, multiply that by every part necessary to keep one operational, and then face all the people every year who say the defense budget needs cut.

A company could buy the schematics and manufacture their own to Navy spec.

They could, but then we'd be back to a $30,000 controller.

I personally doubt that scarcity will be too big an issue with Xbox 360 controllers for the foreseeable future — development of new 360 hardware only ended in April last year. I can think of no piece of consumer electronics cheaper to source and repair than the 360 controller.

I'm sure, though, that both 1. and 2. are concerns the US Navy will have given ample consideration before making this move.

The SNES came out 27 years ago. Can you still get controllers for it?

(Imagine if current submarines were using SNES controllers... )

Did the SNES controller become a de facto standard? Because the xbox 360 controller is one. There are plenty of xinput compatible gamepads from different manufacturers, the largest right now is Logitech. Xinput became pervasive because of PC gaming, it had really good support within windows, and support has been implemented now in Linux and directly in Chrome and Firefox. It's also really popular in the robotics world for exactly the reasons the navy outlined, a group I worked with used 3rd party xbox controllers almost exclusively. The tooling support is there as well, labview has built in xbox 360 controller support, and idk about other competing software but it probably does as well.

To be fair that controller is probably garbage. I've bought similar ones before.

can you fix my controller? last I checked they were like $60

You can buy 360 controllers for £25 ($33) new here in the UK.

To your second point, these things are manifactured in China. What's to prevent them from adding tracking devices or backdoors to these if they realize they're going into US military ships?

How do you know which ones are headed for a submarine? The military could literally just pick a BestBuy and go pick up a dozen controllers whenever they're at a port.

The manufacturers in China would have to put backdoors into all of them, which would be noticed pretty quickly, and the gain is what? They can control the periscope direction? That would be noticed immediately too.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but it sounds more like a plot device for a "set your brain on the seat beside you" action movie.

Both points are already solved if they have already bought a lifetime supply of controllers, which as a sibling comment says, it's not far fetched.

first concern doesn't seem like a big issue, this is a standard usb connector controller not a custom built device so it should be easy to replace.

second concern should be taken seriously however.


This should be done in many more places.

Though with 'cost plus' contracts... providers are incented to create crazy new things for every problem.

If there weren't moral questions around this - it would be amazing to see a NATO forces 'hackathon' where people create top gear/tech for soldiers with off-the-shelf components and software.

I have a funny feeling that 'if they put their hearts to it' - there'd be no competition in terms of what could be created.

Imagine the SpaceX of 'jet fighters' - 2x the capability, 5% the cost.

Anyhow, obvious moral issues there ... just a thought.

"Hacking for Defense" is a step in this direction E.g http://hacking4defense.stanford.edu

"Defense" :) always have to laugh about that part

We have a "Department of Defense" as well as one for "Homeland Security". Cognitive dissonance is a funny thing.

Well, you have the issue of EMP hardening. Not sure if that is a problem in submarines. But elsewhere, you have a serious defensive flaw if an EMP attack can disable military hardware.

A submarine's hull acts as a faraday cage. It's inherently quite well shielded against EMPs.

Is there an EMP capable torpedo though? They seem useless in water. Other than the nuclear ones of course...

I doubt an EMP torpedo would exist targeting submarines underwater. Water is just crazy good at dampening electromagnetic waves. And if you can score a direct hit, the EMP device's weight in extra explosives is cheaper and more destructive.

I think the durability of an Xbox controller is of no consequence against a nuclear torpedo.

How many COTS parts does a SpaceX rocket use?

The Musk biography is a pretty good source for that question. From what I remember, SpaceX produces a rather extreme fraction of its parts in-house (something like 80%–it's been a while). What they don't create themselves, they often source from the consumer market. They avoid the tradition space industry supplies wherever possible because they have had success with off-the-shelve parts available for a fraction of the costs.

I believe the book gave a radio module as an example. It was available for $120,000 at "space-rated" quality, but they bought something at RadioShack for around $3,000, and later replaced it with an in-house part that was smaller/lighter/more power efficient.

To be fair 'space rated' does have meaning.

There is 'off the shelf', 'automotive', 'aeronautic', 'unmanned space' and 'manned space' quality gear.

If you think about it - when you're flying a plane, the 'tolerances' for everything just has to be higher - there's much more at risk.

In a complex system, there are a lot of single points of failure that can cause haywire.

Unsurprisingly, the tolerances for 'unmanned' vs. 'manned' space flight are quite different - and for good reason.

Perhaps the economics are not always quite right, it may make sense to make some small probe out of 'cheap gear' - but there is of course added risk, and usually, you 'only get one launch' attempt.

Finally - there's a reason a 'space grade' radio might cost $13K, and that's because they don't make very many :).

I interned on the Space Shuttle robot arm project - we made these aluminum 'handles' for the arm to grab onto. I mean - really, really basic stuff. $200K each. Engineering, overhead, testing, sales yada yada - we only ever made a few dozen.

>we made these aluminum 'handles' for the arm to grab onto. I mean - really, really basic stuff. $200K each. Engineering, overhead, testing, sales yada yada - we only ever made a few dozen.

That sounds ridiculous. Did your coworkers have a strong opinion of that, or not care?

It's not ridiculous at all, it just seems that way.

It takes a lot of work and investment to design a 'space grade product'.

When you only ever sell 50 of them - total, well the price will be high.

Imagine if only 500 iPhones were ever sold - how much would they cost in order for Apple to make a profit?

It's just the weird economics of small batch products that makes the price seem bonkers, there's no volume to spread the fixed costs over.

I can easily believe that.

Next time you're sat in a meeting with 5 other highly paid software developers, discussing a two line bugfix, think about how much that bugfix will have cost.

I would love to see an Outlook plugin that estimates meeting costs using salary band information for attendees. It would help keep rambling to a minimum.

IPhone has a lot of R&D required for it to do what it does.

How much R&D is reasonable for some "really simple handles?"

Requirements analysis, systems analysis and research (when you do things in space absolutely everything needs to be looked at), materials design and test (materials behave differently in space). Fixtures? How are they affixed to satelites? You can't just 'glue' them. The type of 'screws' are pretty important. This might require a lot of back and forth.

Each step of the process involves internal review and review by the customer - i.e. Japanese space agency, and can take weeks.

Testing requires a massive 'clean room' which is expensive to maintain. And you don't just make these things anywhere - tolerances have to be perfect.

Not only is it tough engineering, it's a lot of bureaucracy.

And then overhead: IT, support, software, flights, hotels yada yada yada. It adds up.

Don't you have (shouldn't you have) a "certified parts library" so you don't need to go through the process of studying which material is needed for a handle, use standard and pre-certified screws to affix them, which you already know won't come off due to vibrations during launch, and won't accidentally fuse once in space (https://www.quora.com/If-two-metals-touch-in-space-they-fuse...). Basically do it right, so you only do it once, like software libraries (in an ideal world). Unless you really really have a damn good reason to not pick an existing handle from the library.

What makes you think people would NOT have consulted paat experience? Given this is space parts, there simply may not have been enough experience.

You've said why it is expensive. Not why it needs to be expensive.

Perhaps you should hawk your minimally-tested, 'just trust us', generic pre-designed handles made out of cheap steel to NASA, and tell them what a bundle they'd save. If it works then you'll be on a gravy train.

Well, a limited-run gravy train, for 50 or so units.

I appreciate some good snark, but that's more or less exactly what SpaceX is doing, although their handles are slightly more complicated.

By using off-the-shelf hardware, and reusing the first stage, they're on a good trajectory to undercut previews launch system by almost an order of magnitude. And NASA trusts them enough to outsource even manned flight to them.

That's literally a salary of 2 upper-grade engineers for a year (for a piece).

There's literally _no way_ it had been done in the most efficient manner.

Though there is a lot of bureaucracy, you'd be surprised at how much work it is.

Consider how much a massive 'clean room' costs to operate.

Consider how much gear it takes to simulate the operation of massive robot arm in a 0G environment, when we live in a 1G environment.

Consider what happens when a 1 ton arm, attached to a 20 ton structure, applies toque to a 1/2 ton satellite... when the satellite is moving ...

Consider how much it costs to send 4 Engineers, a PM and a Bus Dev to Japan for three weeks for talks with Japanese Space Agency? Several times?

Consider the lawyers bill - Japanese, Canadian and American ones. Translators. Insurance estimates. Liabilities.

FYI - did you know that every single thing that goes into space is tracked? Every single screw had an ID number. It's original manufacturer, shipping, the date it was put on the station, by whom, when it was removed - etc etc. Every goddam screw :).

Now think of how much software and admin is needed to track all that.

And now consider that if one single manager, at one single subcontractor opens an 'issue report' anywhere in the world - that the 'countdown' for a shuttle launch was postponed? (Happened to my boss, opened a tiny change request on Admin Software in Toronto - went for lunch - Shuttle countdown froze, panic and hilarity ensue). And the overhead costs associated with that.

Space is expensive, especially 'manned space'.

Vert complex, one-of-a-kind system - where nothing is allowed to go wrong.

And we've managed to end up with shuttle with all of that bureaucracy.

I understand the complexity of the issue at hand. I can.

Nevertheless simple handles going for 200K a piece is a vast budget. Any proper business would quickly open up an internal department to "do the handles" since it both allows them to grow for free (you get additional specialists and the handles) and allows to use the same engineers for something else. More importantly testing becomes less of an issue since now you may easily do integrated testing of several disjoined components at once.

So no - I understand where the expenses come from. But it doesn't mean that structure is in _any_ way motivated.

The idea of subcontracting and every little piece of hardware being done by a separate little entity doesn't seem to work both in terms of pricing and in terms of the amount of work it would be doing be it a merged entity.

Case in point, SpaceX has demonstrated that applying standard business optimization tactics to space hardware manufacturing works.

Mostly. Note that EELV and NASA launches by SpaceX have an extra paperwork charge, which is as big as $20mm. One hopes that eventually the US government will be able to take advantage of the same, cheaper service that commercial launches buy.

"easily do integrated testing of several disjoined components at once."

It just doesn't work that way.

It's an area of hyper-specialization.

Everything made for space is a 'one off', there really are no economies of focus or scale. Maybe in launch.

There just aren't 'lines of business' in space really.

Once you walk in the situation and spend a few days there, and see what's going on, you get it.

I haven't even scratched the surface of it.

Every process is recorded, needs to be archived.

Every single piece of software hardware ever used needs to be 'kept around' in case something goes wrong. 20 year old computers, floppy disks, have to be managed and 'kept up' in case something from way back needs to be tested.

Purchasing requirements/limitations. Political control (governments pay for this, so they set rules, change them). Security clearances. Accounting standards. Process audits. Insurance audits. Hyper-specialization HR impossibilities (like 10 guys in the world qualified to do ABC activity).

You must wonder why it costs '100M dollars' to film a big movie, have a look at the detailed budgets. A lot comes out of the woodwork.

I think I'm really starting to understand more about all the reasons why SpaceX can get stuff in space for a fraction of the cost of Nasa in less than a decade in business

NASA doesn’t build rockets. You mean Lockheed/Boeing/ATK.

Basically yes. The NASA space shuttle was conceived by NASA, chosen by Nixon among a group of possible projects, and then the tank built by Lockheed, orbiter by ATK, etc. If anything, many of the above problems wouldn't just go away, some of them would become even more costly.

Not as bad a mistake as the Challenger Disaster (engineers knew it would happen, but management ignored them).

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Product_binning for something similar related to computers.

I've been reading the bio of Musk and it discusses that they progressively replace COTS as much as possible, building and designing in house because in the end, THAT is cheaper.

I guess there's no way to know for outsiders, but I've heard SpaceX buys a lot from McMaster-Carr. Parts for rocket itself or other tools used to build/test rockets? I have no idea.

A lot of R

Former defense contractor here. I trust Microsoft to have put more time and money into making that controller maximally usable and useful than whatever subcontractor would have made the thing otherwise.

And it's battle tested by millions of player using it frenetically every day!

"Subcontractor" :)

Yeah they have got millions and millions of hours testing down. Great to see them not falling victim to the "not invented here" syndrome.

I am also a former defense contractor.

I wonder how much rigor Microsoft's controllers would have to go through to become a defense industry standard. The $500 Hammer legend doesn't exit in a vacuum, and I've experienced why.

THe UK military has also been flying drones for about 10 years with Xbox controllers...


US too, though not the expensive, well-known ones. I flew an experimental drone for the USAF a few years back and we used PS3 controllers.

It's not new either, I saw people using xbox controllers to control drones 10ish years ago.

But yeah, why use custom controls when an off-the-shelf product with 15+ years of development iterations which is produced in the tens of millions a year will probably never beat it? A good example of going against Not Invented Here syndrome.

Prediction: the U.S. Navy will pay $1000+ for the controller.

Regular PMs by qualified staff with a certified spare available for the down time and a service contract to cover them both. I think its more in the + direction.

Everything in this article sounded great except the submarine commander seemingly considering just running down to the local market to get a controller if theirs broke.

So, now we can have a submarine exploit delivered via a controller?

Consumers can compete with the military for replacement parts, or will taxpayers fund the militarization of the 360 controllers?

Are these being purchased directly from Microsoft or procured via Gamestop?

This is one of those simple ideas that makes a lot of sense. I'm glad to hear there are teams working to reduce costs and improve UX for the military.

Microsoft obviously did a lot of user testing with their controller, but they must have been optimizing for a certain consumer price point as well. It makes me wonder what sort of controller you would have if they spent all that focus on usability, but with the same $38,000 price tag the periscope control panel commands.

Once you add the cost of adapting the periscope HW/SW and organizing + performing a one-off small run of XBox controllers on a US-only supply chain with military markup at each level, I suspect those "XBox controllers" cost closer to $30k than $30.

Given that the 360 is no longer the current model, it's possible that they just took back the molds and swapped out a couple of the ICs. There's very little in a 360 controller to begin with. Even the wireless ones have only one complex/specialized IC[0], and it seems to have been designed by Microsoft themselves.

About half of the semiconductor industry is headquartered in the United States, and about half of the wafer capacity of U.S-headquartered semiconductor manufacturing companies is in the U.S. It is perfectly reasonable to expect Microsoft to be able to manufacture their own IC design in the country with the single greatest semiconductor manufacturing industry in the world.

Edit: here's a (low res) image of the wired controller. It too seems to have only one complex IC, and that too seems to have Microsoft markings on it[1].

[0]: https://d3nevzfk7ii3be.cloudfront.net/igi/4O1NH31bxPOMsUxu.h... [1]: https://cdn.instructables.com/FP6/6FYR/Z4BEV2Z5NA5/FP66FYRZ4...

You have only very vague understanding of how our government works. First, they will not contract this to some startup or anything, but instead the company that does the periscope will do it. Then there are reams of regulations to follow, an everything the contractor does will be the most expensive option available because they charge percentage of “cost”, and the higher the cost, the more money they make. I would be stunned if in the end this ends up being cheaper than just manufacturing the designs that already exist.

Military procurement is indeed not the most perfect process ever invented, but it's not quite the insane caricature this and other comments make it out to be.

The costs-plus accounting scheme is meant to save money. It can just as well be described as "the manufacturer charges the costs plus a fixed (single-digit) percentage of costs. This limits the contractor's margins to the agreed-upon percentage."

And of course the contractors' accounting is routinely scrutinised and all costs need justification.

Remember the famous quote from the Apollo Program: "300,000 moving parts, all supplied by the cheapest bidder". NASA procurement, especially back then, was closely modelled on the military–and the contractors were largely the same as well.

Explain then why our f35 program costs $1.5 trillion and counting.

Because it's a massive program that required several technologies that were never used in production aircraft be made production ready with expensive state of the art technology and deliver a result that has acceptable performance for a wide range of users with a wide range of use cases.

It was pretty obvious from day 1 that this would be expensive af.

Being cutting edge is always expensive af.

There’s nobody more cutting edge than NASA, and its budget _since inception_ is still less than this. There’s expensive and then there’s wiping my ass with hundred dollar bills expensive.

> First, they will not contract this to some startup or anything, but instead the company that does the periscope will do it.

Wouldn't they contract Microsoft to do it, since it's their own design? Even by DoD standards, Microsoft is not a "startup".

I know that there are 360 controllers used in the field already (not sure about Navy). Even if they have different standards, what you're describing probably couldn't be done anyway; the periscope controller company is probably not equipped to do the beautiful consumer goods injection moldings and precision joystick assembly (and calibration). If they tried to do this, it would likely end up costing more, and as diabolical as I think the military procurement contracting process is, I don't think they would do this specific thing unless it saved money or appeared to save money.

What exactly is stopping them from working with Microsoft (who they already contract with all the time!); at most having a U.S. PCB run, and a U.S. IC tapeout (IBM, Intel, ...), and calling it a day?

The periscope company will just CNC it out of a solid block of titanium then.

Microsoft wouldn’t want their business. It’s a relatively small amount of money for very large amount of pain in the rear. And even if they did want DoDs business, DoD wouldn’t deal with them directly, instead they’d subcontract them through one of those giant contracting companies with “Federal” in their name.

> DoD wouldn’t deal with them directly

Why wouldn't they deal with them directly? They already do!

I understand being cynical, but you have to admit you're making a satire of this system, no matter how ridiculous it is in reality.

I’m not being cynical, I’m speaking from direct experience. Satire, as it turns out, is not quite as inventive as government bureaucrats.

I waa not aware the DoD directly purchases hardware from Microsoft.

The article specifically mentions that Lockheed is handling the integration.

Microsoft doesnt manufacture those microcontrollers, they are off the shelf Microchip/Infineon parts.

Also there are a LOT of third party xbox controllers out there - I'm sure they don't mind if it's an official controller or not.

oh they(if you meant Microsof&Xbox) do mind, infineon chip does TPM, third party controllers are either legit licensed, or reverse engineered


Theres an entire market for high-end gaming controllers, from both Microsoft[0] and other manufacturers[1][2].

I had a chance to try out the Elite - they feel great, very solid build. The requirements for gamers might be a bit diff to what a submariner would require - but I could imagine the Navy would prefer the sturdiness of these high end controllers and that gamers prefer wired and low-latency.

[0] https://www.xbox.com/en-US/xbox-one/accessories/controllers/...

[1] https://scufgaming.com/s/xboxone/

[2] https://www2.razerzone.com/au-en/gaming-controllers/razer-wi...

The weak point of the elite controller(and I do have one) is the micro-usb port. I imagine it's completely unacceptable on a submarine that you suddenly lose control of the periscope because the cable is a bit dodgy and doesn't sit in the port properly. Wired X360 controllers have a major advantage here. Also if you drop the Elite controller the dpad and the analog sticks will fly in all directions because they are held by magnets.

What stops anyone from soldering (the USB) and/or hot-glueing those parts on? The tradeoff between customizability and ruggedness is quite easy to fix.

In my experience the buttons most likely to break are the LB and RB shoulder ones, since if the controller falls it might take out the switch on direct impact with it's full weight.

Well, nothing, but my guess is that it needs to work straight out of the box for military use, you can't be hot-gluing buttons and cables on equipment that's used on a submarine.

Why not? Have a professional supplier handle the mods to mil-spec and you have a mil-grade product. If it fits the requirements you shouldn't just rule out something just because it sounds DIY.

The process might double the price, but still cheaper than anything custom ordered. Glue is a perfectly acceptable solution if done right. Plastic welding is also an option.

Thank you.

> Microsoft obviously did a lot of user testing with their controller

Precisely. Remember the "Duke" controller?

I love it when manufacturers choose to use common and inexpensive connectors/components, rather than choosing to make their own proprietary one. Using the iec 320 c13/14, usb micro, and other "standard" connectors is laudable.

Big fan of standardization as a principle over here. Even if the technology in question isn't the best, if its adequate I become an advocate as soon as its near being a standard. More use of common and inexpensive things and more standards just makes everything more modular and easier to fix in general.

That's great. Those controllers are awesome, durable, easily replaceable, cheap, portable, intuitive, and have undergone an ungodly amount of user testing. Most importantly the recruits will typically have experience having used them in the past.

That's a good sign. I'm sure the alternative is getting a quote from some contracter who would want to reinvent the wheel for millions of dollars, and probably a worse result. Microsoft already did the legwork of development. More consumer products ( as long as there are sufficient fallbacks / quality control ), in military operations, is a-ok in my book.

To be fair, their stuff is very good.

I have been using an xbox one controller instead of a mouse for 4 or 5 months now. I use the qjoypad package to map the thing. It's really great and I believe it's why my chronic right-side back pain has completely vanished.

So as someone who uses this type of input device, I think it's a great fit for military use.

I started doing this too, but use Antimicro (https://github.com/AntiMicro/antimicro) instead of Qjoypad, since I find it to be more configurable. I don't use it as a replacement for a mouse but a keyboard instead. I configure it for specific apps where I need repetetive keystrokes, such as :

- VLC when I need an easier way to seek media by various amounts, speed-up/slow-down the video, play next in the playlist. Using the controller frees me from being hunched on the keyboard

- Any document reader to navigate pages

It can of course be configured as a replacement for a mouse, but the precision in my experience was way lower.

I'm going to take a look at that

I ran into the precision issue as well, but my brain eventually figured out how to deal with it. I use the left analog pad for higher precision tasks

I would be interested in learning more about your experiences using this? Have you been controlling a PC and what are your experiences with entering text and so forth? Hope you can find the time to answer all my stupid questions!

I mainly use it on my desktop, running debian stretch

The interesting thing is there's a learning period of a few weeks where I kept the sensitivity low on the analog sticks. I have the sensitivity lower on the left stick (for packages like inkscape or blender). I gradually ramped up the sensitivity. I often use it one-handed (right hand) and control with just the right analog stick. I have the analog pad clicks set to the right mouse button. The 'a' button is my left click, x button is 'enter', 'b' is another right click. The dpad is up, down, left right keyboard buttons. I use the left and right bumpers to switch between by workspaces (lb switches workspace up, rb switches down). the triggers enable middle mouse scroll up or down.

I still use a keyboard so entering text isn't much different, and I'm a vim user so the mouse isn't a big part of my workflow when coding or entering text.

Wow, can you elaborate on how you employ it and what you think it did specifically to help?

I just posted a slightly more detailed response in this thread related to the layout I use.

In terms of how I think it helped:

for ergonomics/back pain relief: I tend to sit up with a lot better posture now rather than 'reaching out to the right' where the traditional mouse used to be.

Over time, I'd developed some minor right side back pain and I stretched a lot and attempted better posture. It only helped so much. After I'd switched to the xbox controller, I started to feel better after a few weeks. Months later, the pain was completely gone and it hasn't come back since. I didn't make any other significant changes and I suspect my change in user input devices could be to thank.

Your posts are going to help people. Thank you.

I've experimented with using Padstar for the same purpose. It worked well enough, but I had no particular reason to keep using it.

Did development engineering in the air force. Worked with xbox360 drivers as a PoC for bomb defusal bots. The troops loved the ergonomics, and the product was cheap. iirc i think irobot does use these for our bomb bots

And many youth will already be trained on the controller.

I've seen this subject come up before. It makes sense. I believe it was even considered for UAV controls.

> And many youth will already be trained on the controller.

And if they're not, give the troops XBOXs and Halo, and they'll be more than happy to train THEMSELVES on it in their free time!

South Korean Navy recently retrofitted their Type 209 and other submarines with digital camera based pericopes, replacing traditional periscopes.

When the South Korean Navy procurement office requested proposal from traditional periscope manufacturers, the quoted price was astronomical.

S Korean Navy said no thanks and had local manufacturers develop/test/manufacture a new digital camera based periscope at a FRACTION (like 10% ?) of the quoted price from traditional manufacturers.

While they're not likely to be the best control experience you can possibly get for a given application (as any serious FPS or fighting game player can tell you), the mainstream official console controllers really are engineering and design feats in their own right. This is one of those things where getting it 90% right is easy but the last 10% will make people hate using it.

Will it vibrate when they get hit?

Technically, yes. Possibly a very short vibration, however.

Captain Ramius: Re-verify our range to target... one ping only.

Capt. Vasili Borodin: Captain, I - I - I just...

Captain Ramius: Give me a ping, Vasili. One ping only, please.

Capt. Vasili Borodin: Aye, Captain

Well I'd rather use awsd and a mouse personally.

They probably added auto-aim.

Why not? It's a good controller, cheap, and readily available.

I'm reminded of the in-joke in Metal Gear Solid 4 that saw Solid Snake use a PS3 controller to joystick around the "Metal Gear Mark II" recon drone. Then, as early as later that same year, actual soldiers were operating actual drones with Xbox controllers...

What about ratings? Military hardware typically use electronics with wider margins for temperature, humidity, power surge, etc... While consumer hardware is used a lot in R&D and testing, it normally doesn't make it to the final product.

Of course, I practice, I think that a peripheral designed to withstand the wrath of gamers worldwide could handle an actual war just fine. And if not, replacements don't cost much. But still, it is surprising that armed forces accept something not covered by rubber stamps and red tape.

This isn't the first time our armed forces have used the venerable Xbox 360 controller, they're cheap and easy to replace, ubiquitous, and basically anyone can use one comfortably.

Sure, they aren't waterproof, dust proof, have overvoltage protection, etc. but whatever - you can carry a dozen spares for $240.

I guarantee that they ran some tests and figured out that xBox controllers were either manufactured to tolerances "close enough to what we'd spec out that the difference is negligible" or that stuffing one more spare in a ziploc bag gave them less overall downtime than nicer hardware and carrying fewer spares.

The Xbox 360 wired controller is a great piece of kit, easily the best controller ever as a balance of price, reliability, and simplicity of use - the API has literally two functions, "what buttons are pressed" and "set vibration to X". The initial Xbox One controllers were a clear regression, although the recent Xbox One X are much better again. However, for use cases such as the submarine in TFA, wireless is a liability, not an improvement.

The Xbox One controllers send data over the USB cable when plugged in. You could make the argument that the USB cable could get pulled out of the controller, but the Xbox 360 wired models have the breakaway which is just as easy to pull out with a good yank anyway.

> but the Xbox 360 wired models have the breakaway which is just as easy to pull out with a good yank anyway

If that became an issue, you could put duct tape around the breakaway to hold it in place. More difficult with a micro USB connection.

I also am one to agree that I think this is a great step forward with maybe trimming off our huge military expenditures, particularly ones that come out as "leaks" because they are so embarrassed of them.

I'm sure the U.S. navy will be taking a look at the hardware and maybe even flashing their own firmware on them, lest we open ourselves up for a catastrophic backdoor.

> I'm sure the U.S. navy will be taking a look at the hardware and maybe even flashing their own firmware on them...

Doubt it. If Lockheed properly addressed IA during design review, focus will be on the host, not the controller.

In the overall cost of the periscope, I'd be surprised if the original $30K controller was even 1% of the total. It's still $30,000 saved, but in the scheme of things this sort of economizing is not going to have any impact.

What's more important is they found a more familiar, intuitive, hence better controller device. That it was also much cheaper was just a little bonus. If the savings in training hours are to be believed, that will be a much greater savings than the cost of the hardware.

It also makes maintenance cheaper over time, that $30K controller is going to cost a lot more to fix should it malfunction or get damaged than replacing a $20 game controller.

It is not about the 30k$, I guess (around 10 subs, so circa 300k$ savings is not a bug thin for the army), but the spirit is the key, as the mindset will spread, and can potentially lead to huge savings.

> “I can go to any video game store and procure an Xbox controller anywhere in the world, so it makes a very easy replacement.”

Or the Rec room.

I fear the day when a controller in the rec room breaks, and they realize that the reverse is also true.

$30000/$30=1000 replacement '360 controllers.

Now you just need space for all of them.

I guarantee that for something as fundamental as the main periscope control, _everything_ is going to have replacement parts. That's why $30k is so expensive, it's not $30k, it's $60k or $90k or $120k. Now they have the kind of problem that's fun to have: for half or quarter of the cost of replacing that proprietary controller, they can have so many '360 controllers they won't be able to store all of them on board.

Surely there isn't that much room on a sub. I've heard horror stories of how cramped they are.

That is because the supply rooms are crammed full of XBox 360 controllers.

Food, actually. They cram food all over them. When the embark, they don't have room for all the food in the galley. So, it gets tucked into every nook and cranny.

They don't just get to stop at neighborhood grocery stores, after all.

Wow, I was just making a joke and you responded with something really insightful that I have never thought about at all. I've toured one of the museum submarines a few years ago and it amazed me how cramped everything was. It didn't even occur to me how difficult food storage would have to be.


This is true (Former submariner here). We store food in the torpedo room, engine room, fan rooms, etc...pretty much anywhere that won't impede dealing with casualty response.

Yeah, I grew up in a family of Navy and Marines. I'd do my service in the Marines. I also watch way too many documentaries. Submarines are firmly on my nope-list.

For anyone interested in this stuff who hasn't already done it, I'd highly recommend a tour of a museum submarine. I recently did the USS Growler in NYC and it was really neat. Highly obsolete, of course, but the general idea of being cramped and using every bit of space is timeless.

It was hard to imagine living in there for months at a time. One person in my tour group almost started freaking out just in the ten minutes we were inside.

On using every bit of space: I also recommend a visit to Johnson Space Center in Houston. If you are lucky you can catch a tour of the life-sized model of the ISS they have. It's interesting to see the different countries' engineering approach to "using every bit of space." The American modules are fairly well put together, generally non-surprising space saving solutions. The Russians appeared to just give up and hew everything out of solid blocks of some sort of light metal. Then you step into the Japanese module and it's just... perfection...

Great, now China's going to put malware into every Xbox controller on the off-chance it gets inserted into a USN submarine /s

This is something to worry about. USB hosts and devices identify themselves - malicious firmware embedded in the Xbox controller could check if it's connected to a real Xbox, compared to a Windows PC, or a submarine, and act (or misbehave) accordingly.

And what is the plan in 20-30 years' time when the submarines are still in action but the controllers stopped being made? I get the feeling we'll see Navy personnel bidding on "vintage" Xbox controller auctions on eBay the same way prices for original NES and Atari controllers are through the roof right now.

> I get the feeling we'll see Navy personnel bidding on "vintage" Xbox controller auctions on eBay

Replace Ebay with flea market and this is how in the second half of 199x some spare parts for Soviet/Russian space station "Mir" (and for some other space projects, well into beginning of 200x) were procured. With USSR falling and economy tanking/changing/"privatized in all senses and at all scales" many typical sources for space parts just disappeared and/or stopped working.

USB hosts do not identify themselves to devices.

How does my iPhone know which PC I've plugged it into then? Even when iTunes isn't installed (so no "Apple Mobile Device" drivers) it seems to remember my privacy preferences on a per-host basis.

I'll concede that may be a feature of the allocation protocol running on top of USB (PictBridge?) but that still means that mutual identification over USB is still possible. I'm pretty sure it's in the USB HID spec that the Xbox controllers implement.

Make the periscope report to the controller that it's an Xbox.

Then you would just have to write the malware in such a way that it works fine on legitimate hardware but exploits a glitch that exists only on the military hardware. Maybe based on MS drivers VS Linux drivers (or whatever OS the navy uses).

simply install "an USB firewall" into the periscope controller (not the xbox, but the usb host).

but my thought exacty: put a prepared controller to "game room" (sure there is such a thing on a nuclear sub). sabotage controllers. wait until one in "game room" gets plugged into periscope. Profit.

Surely they wouldn't just be using whatever firmware the controller ships with?

I worked at a military contractor one summer, decades ago. Back then, nothing went out that wasn't mil-spec. My novice understanding of this was that equipment used by the military must be able to withstand a much wider variety of stress, and exhibit a much greater degree of usability under every possible scenario, than could be provided by consumer-level products. Specifically, my job at the time was sitting in a dark room helping to measure the light output of switches that were used on airplane consoles. This was understandable because this equipment is not only life-or-death but must perform in chaotic and hostile environments.

TL;DR. Does the xbox 360 controller to be used on navy submarine work when say....it gets wet? (or just how does it deal with saltwater corrosion). Not to mention the security issues I see other people mentioning here.

No it probably doesn't do well when wet or corroded, but, instead of $38,000 for single point of failure, you now have watertight box of 20 (or more) $30 controllers.

I get that, but the corrosion is internal. The unit could fail in the middle of a critical operation. How are they handling that?

> The company says the photonic mast handgrip and imaging control panel that cost about $38,000 can be replaced with an Xbox controller that typically costs less than $30.

I'm curious if their supplier will give them the bargain US-government-only price of $1999.95 per controller.

Maybe they have a mil-spec fallback mechanism (manual control, maybe?). Would that suffice?

Frankly that would still be a huge cost savings and I wouldn't even be mad

Gonna have to mark that up a bit more. :)

I've noticed xbox style controllers are very common in the military now. I'm thinking it's a generational thing. It wasn't that long ago that you would have seen a big joystick covered in buttons serving this purpose.

imo, less generational and simply forward progress in human factors, engineering and design.

It's kinda funny and pragmatic at the same time. Soon tanks and planes will be controlled this way too. It will be much easier to train all the gamers for war in reality.

On the other hand, it further "gamifies" war instruments and removes military personnel from their actions.

Former PS3-controller-controlled weapon operator here. I don't think this is accurate at all, for two reasons:

1. The more technology involved, the more audio/video/telemetry is recorded and stored. If we shot somebody, there was ALWAYS a legal review afterward. Your average grunt doesn't face anywhere near that level of scrutiny (not saying they aren't scrutinized, just not to that extent).

2. Despite common preconceptions about military members, exaggerated by Hollywood and not a few knuckleheads, the majority of us are regular people. We have families and a dog, and we don't like to kill people. We do it because we believe it's our duty to keep you safe. Years later, we still cry about it. It's a heavy burden. The X-Box controller doesn't change that.

This makes sense. Microsoft spent a lot of time researching the ergonomics of these controllers, why replicate their user research?

> everything is controlled with a helicopter-style stick... It’s kind of clunky in your hand; it’s real heavy

Have we got an image of this? Side by side with the controller?

I can't believe my tax dollars would be used for such an expensive thing! At least go to the lowest bidder and get MadCatz ones!

Navya uses those in their autonomous shuttles for troubleshooting by an operator to stop/steer the vehicle.

don't these things have microphones and components of questionable origins? I agree that it's basically a good idea but I'd be a little worried about embedded mics/etc from wherever living inside of nuclear subs.

XBox controllers are super inaccurate and have lot of random noise. They could have used remote controllers for drones like FrSky and plugged it in as joystick. It would cost $250 instead of $25 but, gosh, you are in $100M sub!

Not for nothing this isn't uncommon, The CLU on a javelin missile uses a ps2 controller. Split to separate hands but when your training on it your like, I remember this.

This makes an enormous amount of sense

Once they add these to jets I'll be able to use my battlefield multiplayer history as a résumé :)

Why not PS4 controllers ?

How do you think that would go over with the sailors? "Government awards military contract to foreign company."

ah! i was thinking it might had been related to usability... nice one thanks :D

I suspect the 360 controller being available in a wired-only version is a factor (also as to why 360 and not One)

$38k for the current version ! No Way !

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