To know what’s coming next for some of the world’s most advanced—and stealthy—vehicles, visit Area 51.
No, not the top-secret U.S. government facility on the shores of a dried-up Nevada lake bed. The one conspiracy theorists say houses flying machines with extra-terrestrial origins.
This Area 51, named in honor of its desert counterpart, turns the idea of secrecy inside out. The denizens of the Manassas, Va., facility don’t hide from prying eyes. Instead, they’re the ones on the prowl. They hit tradeshows, read tech blogs and meet contacts from all over the tech industry. Their mission: find technologies fit for America’s silent service.
And one of their latest acquisitions doesn’t come from aliens. It comes from us. It’s our SHIELD gaming portable.
Joining the Sub
This is more than just the tale of how our SHIELD gaming portable has a shot at a field promotion. It’s also a story about how a generation that grew up with digital tools is redefining the U.S. Navy. And they’re steering the world’s most advanced warships towards the lightweight, low-cost gear they’re already comfortable with.
Which is a big deal, if you’ve got to haul 25 pounds of gear up to the top of a nuclear submarine. To drive a submarine when it’s on the surface, officers stand at the top of the sail—a long, narrow structure atop the submarine. They use custom, industrial-strength gear housing communications and indicators. It’s sort of like your car’s dashboard. Just more basic—and expensive. Why not just use SHIELD to help officers drive the sub when it’s on the surface?
“Talk to some of the junior sailors and they’ll say ‘This is cool, but it kind of looks like my dad’s submarine,’” says Josh Smith, a former submarine officer and the director of the Tactical Advancements for Next Generation (TANG) program, a design-thinking initiative at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). “We want sailors to come on board and feel they know how to use all this.”
The Perfect Brainstorm
TANG is part of a broader effort by the U.S. Navy to take advantage of commercial technologies. For more than a decade, the U.S. Navy has been putting off-the-shelf tech into its submarines’ sonar systems. The Navy can swap this gear in and out fast. So sailors always get the most advanced stuff.
And now, with TANG, those sailors help to steer decisions about the technology they use. Started in 2011, TANG brings a Silicon Valley-style product development process to the U.S. Navy. It puts sailors together with developers to create new ways of working. It’s led by the Navy and APL, in coordination with Palo Alto, Calif., design studio IDEO, with participation from Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and other technology companies. (Its acronym is an homage to the U.S.S. Tang, a famed World War II submarine.)
It turns out, these digital natives—most sailors arrive on a submarine at age 20 or so—already know how they want to work. They want the stuff they grew up with. So the U.S. Navy is now finding ways to use consumer electronics to change the way crew members control its ships. And collaborate with each other.
“TANG takes advantage of new technologies and the imagination, knowledge and experience of younger-generation sailors,” says U.S. Navy Capt. Steven Harrison, who heads the TANG program for the Naval Sea Systems Command. “And TANG goes beyond submarines. Its unique design-thinking approach to technology upgrades is being used for submarine sonar and combat systems, surface ship combatant sonar systems, and surveillance sonar systems.”
Out of the (X)Box Thinking
It’s a process that’s already put console controllers into the U.S.S. Colorado. Commissioned in 2008, the 7,800-ton nuclear-powered attack submarine has a sophisticated periscope system. It’s outfitted with infrared scanners, range finders, low-light cameras and other digital imaging tools. But despite its advanced capabilities, sailors have to lug around a bulky eight-pound joystick to use it. The entire system costs more than $125,000 for just one sub.
Xbox controllers, by contrast, cost around $25 each.
Sailors come to the Navy knowing how to use these controllers. Many of them use consoles every day to unwind in Navy rec rooms. So they’re already aboard most of the U.S. submarine fleet.
From Left SHIELD
More is coming. Area 51 is already testing ways to use our SHIELD portable gaming console in submarines. One use case: using SHIELD to replace the gadget sailors have to haul up as the sub glides along the surface.
That gives sailors several advantages. They lug less weight, of course. SHIELD’s screen could also let an officer driving the submarine from the sail looking through the periscope, 15 feet above. This lets the officer see further. And even use some of the periscope’s sophisticated optical enhancements.
SHIELD uses Google’s Android operating system, so it’s compatible with other gadgets. Submariners might even use it to steer commercial drones scouting the area around the ship.
Another possibility: let anyone equipped with a SHIELD take a look out of the periscope. And if a sailor needs to zoom in on one part of the image, the console-grade controls they need are already in their hands.
To be sure, there are no guarantees. For now, the idea of using SHIELD is just a concept that sailors and brass working with Area 51 are studying. Submarine designs don’t change as fast as they do in the consumer electronics industry, of course. But access to that world means the U.S. Navy can move quickly. To get this gig, we’re going to need to compete with everything else on the shelf.
“The U.S. Navy is a serious technology powerhouse; we are seeking viable, state-of-the-art solutions capable of bringing about transformations on a real-world schedule,” says Harrison. “TANG is putting those technology solutions—many of which already exist today, in the form of video game controllers, tablets and virtual reality gear—in front of our sailors.”
Our secret weapon: many of these sailors already use this stuff in their free time. With any luck, on-duty sailors will soon find our gear, um, surfacing, too.