Inside the New Military Tank Operated by an Xbox Controller

August 12, 2020

Every year, millions of gamers play games like Call of Duty: Warzone to experience the thrill of a virtual battlefield. But what if gaming went beyond your screen and out into the real battlefields of the world?

That is the case with the Carmel. That is the unassuming name for a special Israeli tank designed to be the next generation of military craft. And that tank is controlled by an Xbox controller!

The gaming comparisons don’t stop there. It also has A.I. honed by games like Doom and Starcraft II. While it sounds crazy, some think gamer-friendly vehicles like this are the future of “modern warfare.”

Go ahead and put down your own controller, and we’ll take a closer look under the Carmel’s hood.

From bedroom to battlefield

Most gamers would be out of place in a typical tank. That’s because the displays and the controls are nothing like what they are familiar with.

The Carmel changes all of that. It is filled with touchscreen tablets that allow drivers and operators to make adjustments to weaponry, speed, and more. And the driver controls the steering, aim, and firing of this tank with an Xbox controller.

In short, anyone who has logged their share of hours playing video games will feel right at home steering this tank around. But it still takes training beyond video games to operate the vehicle at peak efficiency.

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Made for younger soldiers

The notion of controlling a tank with an Xbox controller may sound insane. However, there is a very specific method to their madness.

It was designed for the Israeli Defence Force’s active-duty forces. And these forces are mostly comprised of men and women between the ages of 18 and 21.

It was only logical, then, to create a tank that would be instantly familiar to these younger soldiers. And that familiarity cuts down on training time and increases their overall combat efficiency.

Ditching the stick

In case you were curious, using an Xbox controller was not always the plan. At first, it was going to be controlled by the kind of joystick that you’d normally find in military aircraft.

However, drivers who experimented with the joystick didn’t love the fact that it was fixed in place. They requested a video game controller because this would allow them to move the controls to their lap and more easily adjust how they sat in the tank.

Ultimately, the Xbox controller proved more comfortable for drivers. And the fact that they intuitively understood what the different buttons did helped make them better soldiers.

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A gamer-style HUD

The video game elements of the Carmel don’t stop with the controls. Remember those touchscreen displays we mentioned earlier? They help to create a gamer-style HUD to help drivers and operators.

These screens display things like a map, ammo, and weapons the soldiers can use. It’s all practically information, of course, but it is presented like the HUD of Call of Duty.

Interestingly, designers were worried that some of this might disconnect soldiers from reality a little too much. That’s why they ditched early plans to incorporate VR goggles. This forces soldiers to look at everything through their own eyes.

Not the first time?

The Carmel appears to be the first “gamer” tank created from the ground up. But the basic concept of game controllers guiding military hardware has been around longer than you might imagine.

For example, in 2014, Boeing controlled their High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator with an Xbox controller. And a U.S. Navy attack submarine commissioned in 2018, the USS Colorado, uses a periscope operated by an Xbox controller.

Perhaps the wildest example came in 2008 when the U.S. military operated an explosives-disposal robot with a Nintendo Wii controller.

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Powered by… Doom and Starcraft II?

While the controller and the HUD are the most visible gamer elements of this tank, it has some serious game influence under the hood as well. That’s because the AI was honed by Doom and Starcraft II. 

That may sound just as wild as the Xbox controller. But Starcraft II’s A.I. trainer is famous for its ability to adapt to different situations with very different variables. 

Because of this, designers used Starcraft II (and the occasional other game such as Doom) to “teach” the tank different strategies for navigation, target detection, weapon selection, and more.

Now, the Carmel is more efficient at detecting targets, navigating terrain, and completing tasks. Maybe someday it will pull off a Zerg rush?

Ethical concerns of military ‘gamification’

As interesting as this tank is, it raises a number of ethical concerns. And the basis of these concerns has been around for many years.

Critics worry that military forces are using this “gamification” to dehumanize enemy soldiers. And different military forces have used military simulations for decades so soldiers don’t hesitate to shoot an enemy.

More recently, that debate has shifted to America’s reliance on military drones for combat. Many drone pilots say that flying the drone is like playing a game. And the military hasn’t hesitated to recruit gamers from places like gaming conventions, and in a recent controversy, on Twitch.

Many innocent people have been killed via drone strikes. Therefore, it seems there may be some danger to disconnecting soldiers from the reality of war.

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