Real War Games: Video Game Controllers Hit the Battlefield
The Esterline HaWC rugged game-style controller for unmanned systems.
CREDIT: Stuart Fox
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Year after year, the venerable PlayStation controller has proven itself the ideal tool for fighting Nazis, zombies and all manner of aliens. But while gamers have used the device to slay virtual foes, the video game controller has served double duty operating real-life weapons against flesh- and-blood adversaries. Right now, military-grade game controllers nearly indistinguishable from their civilian counterparts allow soldiers to operate cameras, fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and even fire remote-controlled machine guns.
Here at the AUSVI Unmanned Systems conference, a number of companies have put their martial version of the civilian gaming controller on display. The military version of these controllers feature rugged components and sealed cases to protect the fragile electronics from dust, water and general abuse (what's known as "grunt-proofing"). They sell for thousands of dollars, but still use common formats such as USB to transmit data.
"The U.S. Army recognized that today's warfighter is an 18- to 20-year-old with PC gaming experience. They wanted a controller with the form factor of a video game controller, but built to withstand a military environment," said Walter Freed, a business manager with Ultra Electronics, the company that makes the controllers. "If I plugged this into a laptop, it would recognize it as a gaming controller."
Known as "dismounted controllers" to distinguish them from the mounted controllers used to, say, swivel a tank turret, these game device clones most often replicate the form of a PlayStation controller, with a directional pad on the left, two joysticks in the middle, and several buttons on the right. The FMCU Ruggedized Controller made by Ultra Electronics even features an optional screen, through which an operator can see through the eyes of a UAV or gun-mounted camera.
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The Army originally tried to use commercially available game controllers, but found that they couldn't withstand the rigors of military life, Freed told InnovationNewsDaily. Solving the problem involved taking the same form factor and proofing it against weather, moisture, physical abuse, secondary projectiles and the extreme changes in pressure associated with falling out of a plane during an airdrop. Additionally, the military still distrusts digital systems for lethal uses, requiring any controller used to fire a machine gun to feature a wire connection directly to the weapon.
Beyond providing a time-tested platform for digital control, these dismounted controllers can significantly reduce training time amongst a population of soldiers largely familiar with their operation. After all, when you've vanquished demon hordes and brought down galactic empires, driving a robot truck seems innocuous and simple by comparison.
"It's intuitive, and the guys who are using these are all gamers," said Kevin Allen, director of research and technology at Esterline Control Systems. "You can take a guy down at Fort Bliss using a [land-based robot], and he can learn to use this controller in 10 minutes."
Yet despite their utility, the age of these controllers may soon come to a close, thanks to the same kind of technological familiarity that spurred their development in the first place. Today's new soldiers, while still avid gamers, have become accustomed to an even higher level of control and interaction, thus requiring the development of a new generation of dismounted controllers that resemble iPhones or Wii nunchucks more than an old Nintendo gamepad.