What Is The “Titan” Submersible, How Is It Different From a Submarine, and Why Is It Driven By A $30 Game Controller?
By now you’ve probably heard about the Titan, a 22-foot-long submersible (not a submarine… more on that soon) that’s carrying 5 brave souls who were attempting to view the wreckage of The Titanic.
On June 16, the craft’s support ship, the Polar Prince, set out from St. John’s of Newfoundland. Then, on Sunday the 18th, the submersible launched and started the 12,500 foot descent to the ocean’s floor.
Roughly 2 hours after the launch, communication between the Titan and Polar Prince were cut off.
So what went wrong?
Submersibles vs Submarines
First, let’s look at what the Titan actually is… which is a submersible.
These crafts are built for relatively short journeys, are designed to protect passengers from the lethal pressures of the deep ocean, and have no ability to be a sustainable, long term environment. Submersibles also generally don’t have their own navigation systems (like GPS) because they’re not designed to have the need for those systems. That was the case with Titan, as it was being navigated by the crew of the Polar Price.
Submarines, on the other hand, are craft that propel themselves, have living quarters and can maintain crews of dozens of people for months. They also have very sophisticated navigation systems because they need to know exactly where they are in relation to where their allies and enemies are at all times.
Long story short, a submersible is not designed to go roaming around the ocean. They’re built for very short trips, when compared to submarines, and the Titan reportedly only has 4 days worth of oxygen.
The Crew: Tourists vs Experts
Second, while the crew wasn’t made up of novices, the majority of people on board were tourists.
While the people aboard haven’t been publicly named, social media posts have confirmed that the passengers are:
- OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush
- British businessman Hamish Harding
- Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood
- Shahzada’s son, Sulaiman Dawood
- French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet
Only Stockton and Paul-Henri would really know how to do something in an emergency, and even then a submersible has very limited options.
Submersibles like the Titan have ballast systems that allow the vessel to rise quickly to the surface if it loses power. Unfortunately, the crew isn’t able to open the vessel from the inside. The doors have to be bolted shut from the outside to ensure the right pressure is maintained for the trip.
That means they could be floating out there in the open ocean, and could conceivably run out of oxygen before somebody finds them.
That $30 Game Controller
Third, you’re probably hearing about a video game controller that was created in 2010 that’s being used to pilot the vessel.
Yes, that’s true, and here’s the photo to prove it.
It’s a Logitech F710 wireless PC game controller, to be exact. And it costs $30.
Now you’re probably thinking, “WHAT?!? Are they crazy?”
Well, not really.
The US military has been using modified Xbox controllers for years to guide their submarines.
The controller of US Army's M-SHORAD / The fire controller of Challenger 2 pic.twitter.com/J60VKTTE4B
— Sovinskiy (@_Sovinskiy) February 16, 2023
Seriously, it’s kind of a thing now in the military.
The reason? Because they’re cost effective and people know how to use them.
Apparently the controls they replaced were expensive, clunky and hard to use. So the military used a Xbox 360’s controller, and the time to train was cut dramatically.
Also, it was only $30.
So don’t fade something just because it’s cheaper. More expensive doesn’t always mean its better.
A Glimmer of Hope: They’ve Been Lost Before
The guy with his head in his hands in the picture above is CBS Sunday Morning reporter David Pogue.
He was on an OceanGate submersible last summer and they got lost. But only for a few hours.
You may remember that the @OceanGateExped sub to the #Titanic got lost for a few hours LAST summer, too, when I was aboard…Here’s the relevant part of that story. https://t.co/7FhcMs0oeH pic.twitter.com/ClaNg5nzj8
— David Pogue (@Pogue) June 19, 2023
This video details how that happened, how the surface ship guides the submersible, and how that can get a bit complicated overall:
Here is a tour of the vessel. Notice in this video, Stockton Rush turns on the vessel by pressing that ONE singular button.
@bbcnews In 2022, the BBC filmed inside the OceanGate Titanic submersible that has gone missing during a dive to see the wreck. #Titanic #Submersible #Submarine #TitanicWreck #TouristSub #AtlanticOcean #BBCNews ♬ original sound – BBC News
Can They Make It Back Alive?
Only time will tell, but the clock is ticking. And if they’re stuck at the bottom of the ocean, and have no way to ping the ship above, it’s going to be like finding a needlefish in a gigantic, wet haystack.
But it has happened before! In 1973, the Pisces III was rescued from the sea floor. However, they were only 1,575 feet below sea level, and they knew where the submersible was. It also took them 84 hours to retrieve the vessel, and the Titan doesn’t have that much time before the air runs out.
We’ll have our fingers and toes crossed for them, but the outlook is pretty grim at this point.