Paralyzed race-car driver takes Corvette for ride at Wright-Patt

Sam Schmidt is paralyzed and usually gets around in a wheelchair. He switched to a Corvette on Tuesday, thanks to some advanced technology.

Schmidt, 49, satisfied some of his need for speed when he drove a highly modified 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray on the 7,100-foot-long runway next to the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The demonstration featured a semi-autonomous motor car, SAM for short. Schmidt controlled the Corvette through head movements to speed up and steer the rakish Stingray. A bite sensor in his mouth was used to slow the black sports car.

It was a first to show that a quadriplegic without the use of hands or arms can control a car under racetrack conditions.

Schmidt, who was left paralyzed from the shoulders down after crashing during a test lap at Walt Disney World Speedway in January 2000, vividly remembers the first time he drove the car last month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was the first time he had driven in more than 14 years.

“It was obviously exhilarating, motivating, brought tears to my eyes because I didn’t think I was ever going to drive again until we found a cure for paralysis,” he said, sitting outside the Corvette and hinting he’d like one day to race again.

“Being able to drive this car made me feel unbelievably normal again.”

He intends to drive the car in another demonstration this month on the Indy track.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson, Arrow Electronics, Inc. and Falci Adaptive Motorsports (both of Englewood, Colo.), Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Fairborn and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in Indianapolis collaborated on the SAM demonstration, using mostly off-the-shelf commercial technology.

Development work on the project started less than a year ago.

“Sam’s goal for us was not to create a car that can drive itself,” said Glen Geisen, Ball Aerospace chief technologist on the project. “Sam wanted to control the vehicle.”

Behind the wheel, Schmidt wore a baseball cap with eight marble-sized silver reflective spheres. Four infrared cameras around the dashboard reflect light off the spheres to detect head movements that control the performance sports car.

For example, every time Schmidt moves his head forward and back, the car’s speed increases 10 miles per hour. When he tilts his head left of right, it steers the car in that direction. And when he bites on a sensor in his mouth, the car slows or stops.

The infrared technology is the same motion tracking system Hollywood has used in films such as Avatar, said Scott Grigsby, Ball Aerospace SAM project manager.

A co-driver sits next to Schmidt ready to take over if needed. A GPS system keeps the car to within a range of about 10 meters wide and at least 1.5 meters away from the edge of a track.

Schmidt spent hours in a virtual simulator, at one point “driving” at 211 mph using the system in an Indy car. At Indy, he expects to hit 80 mph.

“The whole thing was designed with safety in mind the whole time,” Grigsby said. “Sam’s abilities are a big part of this, too.”

Arrow Electronics integrated the complex systems, said Andrew Dawes, a company field applications engineer.

“The secret sauce, if you will, that puts everything together is the software,” Dawes said.

AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing tracked Schmidt’s biometrics to continuously monitor his heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, oxygenation and respiration.

“Human interaction with automation and supervision of autonomous systems is a huge interest for the Air Force,” said James Christensen, a 711th Human Performance Wing research psychologist.

The same methods could monitor the alertness of a pilot or drone operator with a growing number of tasks, or used in aeromedical evacuations, he said.

Air Force researchers have studied using the brain to control machines, Christensen added.

Schmidt, who founded the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, was frustrated with the years-long pace of finding ways to regain more limb functions, but he was optimistic the demonstration showed it was possible.

“If we get the right pieces, get the right minds working on it … I think we can solve this problem, too,” he said.

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