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The missing submersible was run by a video game controller. Is that normal?

Past Titanic sub passenger on danger of dive
Past Titanic sub passenger on danger of dive: "You know going in how very dangerous this is" 04:28

A desperate search is on after a submersible on a deep sea expedition to the Titanic wreckage went missing with five people on board this week. The submersible, called the Titan, is controlled by what the company's CEO referred to as a video game controller – a fact that raised questions about the vitality of the sub and viability of its hardware. 

In 2022, when CBS News correspondent David Pogue took a trip inside OceanGate's one-of-a-kind carbon-fiber submersible, Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate, held up the handheld device, saying, "We run the whole thing with this game controller."

The video game controller OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush said runs their submersible.  CBS News

It's unclear if the device, which resembles the widely available Logitech F710 wireless gamepad, had been modified or customized. It is also unclear if OceanGate, which coordinates such expeditions, was still using the video game controller on the submersible for the recent trip, during which Rush was the operator. The missing submersible is different from other deep-sea vessels in that it is the only five-person sub in the world that can reach Titanic depths — approximately 13,000 feet, nearly 2.5 miles below the ocean's surface.

Steve Wright, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of the West of England, says several aircraft and sea vessels are partially controlled by what looks like a video game controller. 

Wright, who spoke with CBS News from the university via Zoom, has worked with both manned and unmanned aircraft and says similar devices are used in both. But the devices he described are a bit more advanced than your average PlayStation controller. 

"Avionics is used all over the place, not just flying things," Wright said, pointing to a drone his students were working on, "to the extent that the software we're using in that drone over there is almost the same software being used in submersibles as well."

The controller in Wright's classroom at UWE, where students build drones. Steve Wright

"In a sense, those little joysticks you see are like video game controllers, but it's important to stress that they're made to a much, much higher level of reliability and quality than just your random Xbox controller," he said. 

CBS News has reached out to OceanGate about the Titan's controller and is awaiting response. The company said in a statement it was "exploring and mobilizing all options to bring the crew back safely." The Coast Guard also launched a search and rescue mission for the vessel. 

When shown a photo of the Titan's video game controller via email, Wright said he's "never seen anything like that," and expected there would have been a more reliable main system.

While a video game controller might have most of the capabilities as a regular joystick controller on a sub, Wright said it would definitely not be as reliable. "In fact, I would expect the 'real' submersible controller to have a reliability of about one thousand times that of the games handset," he wrote. 

In 2017, the Navy announced it would implement Xbox controllers on submarines to operate photonics masts, which are similar to periscopes, The Virginia-Pilot reported. Lt. j.g. Kyle Leonard, the USS John Warner's assistant weapons officer, told the publication junior officers and sailors said the original controllers were clunky and Senior Chief Mark Eichenlaub said the Xbox controllers were an easy and cheap replacement.

USS Colorado Commissioning
In this Feb. 2, 2018 photo released by the U.S. Navy, Lt. j.g. William Gregory uses an Xbox game controller to maneuver the photonics mast aboard the submarine scheduled to be commissioned as the USS Colorado on Saturday, March 17, 2018, in Groton, Conn. (Steven Hoskins/U.S. Navy via AP) Steven Hoskins / AP

In that case, the Xbox controllers were not used to steer the subs. 

Wright said the joysticks that help steer various aircraft and vessels are "fundamentally the same" as those on video game controllers. "Mainly, you're not controlling the propulsion system and the thruster system of your airborne vehicle or your submersible vehicle or even your land vehicle," he said. "You're doing what airliners and fighter jets have been doing for decades and that is, you're just making suggestions to a computer."

The joystick likely wouldn't act as an analog to the steering wheel of the vehicle, but would command a computer system within the vehicle that controls the steering.

But the so-called "video game controller" isn't the only system that helps drive submersibles or aircraft, he said. There is often a backup controller in case one breaks and many of the functions of aircraft or submersibles are controlled by a computer, not the operator of the joystick. 

He said people who are good at video games could probably figure out how to use such joysticks, but if things go wrong, knowledge of the computer systems would be needed. 

"It's the same as when you get on a transatlantic flight and you see the pilots in the cockpit, most of the time, they're sat there twiddling their thumbs, not doing much. But I, for one, am very glad that they're sat there, trained up to the level that they are, because they've got a much deeper understanding of the other things that might happen," he said. 

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