When the military needs to deal with the deadly threat of an Improvised Explosive Device, it may be time to take out the Xbox controller. These and other video game controllers have become the standard controls for robot-operating bomb technicians.
It's about controller familiarization.
"Gaming controllers help the younger guys get up to speed quicker," said Tom Phelps, director of North American products for the company iRobot.
Phelps' company produces Roombas — those little autonomous robots that clean home floors — as well as a series of bomb-mitigating robots that became increasingly popular with the military in the last 15 years.
IEDs are the single most deadly apparatus militants have employed to kill or injure coalition forces.
The only way to survive an IED is to stay away from it or disarm it. Generally, Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams send in a bot to inspect a possible IED first, rather than sending in a human.
They can even dispose of IEDs with a robot, either by placing a charge to blow the bomb in place (BIP) or by removing a key element from the explosive, rendering it inert.
Delicate work, as you can imagine.
"The first generation bots had a puck style controller," said Phelps. Early editions of the iRobot PCC — Packbot Control Console — look like an arcade game from the '70s compared to modern gaming controllers.
Younger guys in the ranks had to learn on a large box that had knobs and wheels and buttons.
The learning wasn't going well.
"The feedback from the military was, 'what can you do to make learning this system easier,'" said Phelps.
So Phelps and company called in a few outside consultants, who promptly referred them to the gaming industry.
"By 2006, games like Halo were dominant in the military," said Phelps. "So we worked with the military to socialize and standardize the concept."
That concept being use of actual handheld gaming controllers to maneuver bots on the battlefield. Phelps says the first versions needed an adapter to fit into the PCC.
Since 2007, though, they've standardized the connections.
"We're basically using off the shelf controllers," said Phelps.
He explained that iRobot teamed up with manufacturers like Logitech and standardized their product so that it "would ship out" complete with gaming controllers.
He said there was no copyright or legal issues with either Microsoft or Sony.
"It was considered a very strong success, younger soldiers with a lot gaming experience were able to adapt quickly," concluded Phelps, "there are similar trends in law enforcement, as the change out occurs with retired officers and younger recruits who grew up playing various games."
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