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Quadriplegic Drives Racecar Using Aerospace Technology

by Timothy R. Gaffney

Aerospace America
6 May 2014, 9:45 p.m. EDT

Former_Indy_Racing_League_driver_Sam_Schmidt

Scott Grigsby, right, of Ball Aerospace talks with driver Sam Schmidt prior to Tuesday's demonstration of an aerospace-inspired electronic system that allows Schmidt, a quadriplegic, to drive this specially outfitted race car, the SAM Project Corvette. Schmidt tilts his head to steer and bites on a pressure switch to brake. Photo and caption: Timothy R. Gaffney.

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio – Former Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt refused to let a disabling crash end his love affair with auto racing. Now the quadriplegic motorsports business owner is back in the driver’s seat with the help of aerospace engineers and scientists.

On Tuesday, May 6, Schmidt demonstrated an experimental system that allows him to control a car with head movements. He drove a modified 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray on a closed runway at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base behind the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at speeds of up to 84 miles per hour.

A safety driver with a separate set of controls rode in the right seat.

Schmidt hopes to drive the car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 18 during a break in time trials for the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

The SAM (short for Semi-Autonomous Motorcar) Project is a collaboration of Arrow Electronics, Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., the Air Force Research Laboratory, Falci Adaptive Motorsports and Schmidt’s IndyCar team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Schmidt previously made two test drives on the Indianapolis track. Being able to drive for the first time since 2000 “brought tears to my eyes,” he says.

The project integrated a variety of off-the-shelf components to create a custom system that allows Schmidt to control the car with head movements. OptiTrack donated an optical tracking system of the kind used to capture motion for Hollywood film special effects; four motion-tracking infrared cameras on the dashboard detect the movement of marble-size markers fixed to Schmidt's ballcap. He tilts his head sideways to steer and moves it back and forward to accelerate.

To brake, Schmidt bites on a pressure-sensitive sensor – the only component custom made for the project.

“We tried to use as much off-the-shelf technology as possible. The secret sauce is the software,” says Andrew Dawes, an Arrow field applications engineer.

Using skin sensors, a ViSi Mobile monitor from Sotera Wireless gathers several vital signs and stores them on a computer; the car is also equipped to transmit the data to a remote monitor.

Ball Aerospace did the systems integration work in Dayton, where the company is heavily involved in Air Force technology development. AFRL, the Air Force Research Lab, got involved at Ball’s invitation because it’s interested in human interaction with automation and human supervision of autonomous systems, says James Christensen, a research psychologist with AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing and AFRL’s team lead for the SAM Project.

“The same kind of technologies could apply to aircraft,” he says. The ViSi-Mobile product was developed with AFRL help and will have a near-term application in monitoring patients during aeromedical evacuations, he says. The system would allow a medic to monitor the vital signs of several patients at once on a tablet computer.

Scott Falci, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., is the project’s medical director. Falci Adaptive Motorsports is an Englewood-based nonprofit Falci founded to develop adaptive technology for paraplegic and quadriplegic racecar drivers. The quadriplegic-adapted Corvette follows Falci’s development of a paraplegic-adapted Corvette.

Schmidt, 49, of Henderson, bought his father’s auto parts business in 1989 and built a successful business career while following a passion for auto racing. Beginning in 1997, he competed in three consecutive Indianapolis 500 races and was training for the 2000 season when a January 6, 2000, crash at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida resulted in a severe injury to his spinal cord at the C-3/C-4 levels.

Schmidt remains paralyzed from the chest down, but he has regained neck strength and partial shoulder movement. He maintains an aggressive schedule of two to four hours of daily therapy that includes riding a stationary bike that he operates through electronic stimulation. He formed the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation to find a cure for paralysis.

The May 6 demonstration was held mainly to allow Air Force and company engineers who worked on the SAM project to see the results. A tent and viewing stands were set up at the end of the runway, which is used primarily to land airplanes being retired to the museum and other events.

Schmidt told the crowd the project’s ability to come up with a workable system in less than a year shows the potential to find more mobility solutions for quadriplegics, if not a cure. “It gives me hope,” he said.

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