Submarines: July 27, 2003


For nearly a century, submarine design has dictated that the control room be right below where the periscope is. That's because the periscope was an optical device, where the user in the sub was looking at what a system of mirrors in the periscope tube showed was outside. That changes with the new Virginia class U.S. Navy boats, which will be the first subs built without an optical periscope. Instead, the periscope mast contains video, still and infrared cameras that provide digital images in color, and black and white. Since the images are digital, the periscope mast does not have to pierce the hull (cutting construction costs a wee bit) and the control room can be anywhere in the sub. In the Virginias, the control room is one deck below where it normally would be, and somewhat larger than usual. Moreover, there's now no need for a periscope in the middle of the control room. The periscope images are sent to one of the several large flat screen displays in the control room, and these displays show all manner of information needed by the captain to run the boat. Indeed, the control room looks a lot like the control room of a fictional space ship. Then again, on those long cruises, watching Star Trek reruns have always been a favorite leisure time activity. For decades, US submarine officers have sought a control room that looked more like the bridge of the science fiction star ship. The digital periscope images can be stored, edited and manipulated. Virginia class subs will ship out equipped with an electronic library of visual and electronic information to help the digital periscope quickly identify ships spotted via the new periscope or passive sonar. 


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