• The missing submarine Titan uses a Logitech game controller to navigate.
  • While some have seized on this as a sign of incompetence, game controllers are actually fairly common in the military.
  • Why? Game controllers are durable, well designed, and almost everyone knows how to use one.

As more details come to light about OceanGate and its missing submarine, Titan, the company has come under withering criticism for using a video game controller to operate the sub.

While this may seem unusual, the U.S. military has been using them for nearly two decades. Video game controllers are cheap, rugged, well-designed, and virtually every American teenager knows how to use them.

So is OceanGate’s decision to control Titan with a game controller as ill-advised as it may seem?

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Titan’s Controls

In a recent segment, CBS News highlighted how Titan’s one-person crew uses a video game controller to navigate the sub underwater. Titan uses four Innerspace 1200 electric propulsors to maneuver in all directions at a top speed of 3 knots. The game controller in question is a Logitech F710, an older, wireless controller that uses 2.4-GHz wireless signals to communicate with a PC—or in this case, a submarine.

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Social media users have seized on the company’s use of a game controller as an example of how deeply unserious OceanGate was in Titan’s development and safety. A submarine capable of diving more than two miles underwater and surviving pressures 380 times greater than sea level should, the argument seems to go, have a more sophisticated control system. It’s implied a ride that costs $250,000 to view the wreck of the Titanic should include an experience that involves more bells and whistles and blinking lights, and not … a PC monitor and video game controller.

Video game controllers are the tardigrades of the personal electronics world.

Yet for all the company’s apparent mistakes—and at this point there appears to be a lot of them—the use of a game controller makes perfect sense. Game controllers have gone mainstream in engineering, and even the traditionally conservative U.S. military uses controllers in mission critical situations. Tough and driven to survive the most difficult conditions, video game controllers are the tardigrades of the personal electronics world.

The Military

kunar province, afghanistan – a pacbot 310, an explosive ordnance disposal robot, turns the corner as us army spc andrew b clement, left, an eod technician from jackson, tenn, assigned to 129th eod out of fort lewis, wash, attached to 3rd brigade combat team, 25th infantry division, task force bronco, practices maneuvering it with the help of a computer viewfinder at combat outpost honaker miracle in eastern afghanistan's kunar province, aug 1 clement is based in eastern afghanistan, but goes wherever he and his team are needed photo by us army sgt 1st class mark burrell, 210th mpad
A Pacbot 310, an explosive ordnance disposal robot, turns the corner as U.S. Army Spc. Andrew B. Clement, left, an EOD technician assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, Task Force Bronco, practices maneuvering it with the help of a computer viewfinder at Combat Outpost Honaker-Miracle in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, August 1, 2011.
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Mark Burrell

The first successful home game controller was the Atari 2600 joystick, released in 1977. Over the next 45 years, companies like Coleco, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft have struggled to design controllers that give gamers enough buttons and triggers to keep them happy, while still keeping the handheld devices lightweight enough to hold for hours on end. Competition kept prices low, but ensured features and quality control standards remained high. Controllers also grew extremely durable, as they tended to spontaneously sail across the vastness of the modern living room.

It wasn’t just gamers that recognized the sturdiness and reliability of game controllers. In the 2000s, the Pacbot 310 explosive ordnance disposal robot deployed with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pacbot 310 was operated via a wired Xbox controller, allowing an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist to control the robot from a safe distance.

The U.S. military liked game controllers for all the same reasons gamers did. It also liked them for another reason: many, if not most of its young recruits had used game controllers in civilian life. This eliminated the need to train personnel on new hardware, allowing the services to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.

The use of cheap, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment also eliminates the need for military units to navigate a complex bureaucracy if replacements are needed. A unit only has to make a run to Best Buy or another electronics store to buy the exact same replacement controller. This also allows a unit to easily stock up on spare parts in advance of a deployment.

Controllers Today

vse student operates the talon 4 the controls are simply an xbox 360 controller, this design is an example of how future tech helps bring a familiar feeling to the equipment young soldiers use
An elementary school student uses an Xbox controller to operate a U.S. Army Talon 4 robot.
U.S. Army

Today, nearly all the armed services use game controllers to operate hardware. The Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarines use Xbox controllers to operate the submarine’s photonic mast, a device that substitutes a traditional periscope viewing system for a series of day/night digital cameras and video recorders. The Air Force uses video game controllers in virtual simulators, and the Army’s Stryker Virtual Collective Trainer allows platoons of Stryker armored vehicle crews to train together in a virtual world.

It isn’t just the Pentagon using game controllers. In 2017, the British Army tried remote-controlled ATVs using Xbox controllers. In Ukraine, operators use a Steam deck and its built-in controller to operate the Sabre remotely operated machine gun. In Israel, the Carmel fighting vehicle, a test bed for new armored vehicle technologies, is operated by crew in part using an Xbox controller.

The Takeaway

There are plenty of reasons to fault the developers of the missing Titan submarine, but using a game controller isn’t automatically one of them.

Game controllers have been used in life-and-death situations in combat, and likely will continue to be used in those scenarios for the foreseeable future. The fault that has prevented the sub from surfacing could lie with any one of the submarine’s other complex systems, particularly those that involve diving and surfacing.

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Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.