WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE — When IndyCar driver Sam Schmidt was severely injured in a training accident 14 years ago and doctors told him he would never move his arms and legs again, they didn’t say he would never drive again.
That crash in January 2000 left Schmidt, 49, a quadriplegic. He did not think he would ever get behind the wheel of a car again, until he was approached last June by Colorado neurosurgeon Dr. Scott Falci, of Falci Adaptive Motorsports. The company had previously modified a race car for a paraplegic and they were ready to go further.
Through the Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM) Project, a 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray car has been modified with integrated advanced electronics and a human-to-machine interface so a qualified quadriplegic driver can safely operate it under racetrack conditions. The innovative project is a collaborative effort between Arrow Electronics, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the Air Force Research Laboratory, Falci Adaptive Motorsports and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The project also supports Conquer Paralysis Now, Schmidt’s foundation dedicated to finding a cure for paralysis.
“When I was meeting with engineers involved in the project I told them I’d do it but I had two parameters,” said Schmidt. “I have to be the one driving the car, not some satellite technology or anything, and it has to drive over 100 MPH. If it just goes 40 what’s the point?”
The race car is the first of its kind developed to be driven on a race track and controlled only by an individual’s head. Ball Aerospace led the creation of the human-machine interface and the driver guidance system that are key elements of the SAM Project, and Arrow developed the software that allows those signals to operate the car.
“The technology is out there, it just had to be adapted,” said Ball neurologist and Senior Scientist, Dr. Scott Grigsby, who explained how the car works.
Despite his injuries, he has the ability to move his head, which allowed the Ball team to convert the driver’s head movements into computer commands. These commands flow to the SAM vehicle’s central processor, to control the car’s steering, acceleration and braking.
Infrared cameras detect the tilt of his head by changes in reflected light from four spherical sensors mounted on Schmidt’s hat, similar to cinematic technology. As he moves his head, the cameras sense the movement as a change in reflected light. Schmidt can accelerate the car by bobbing his head forward and back, which increases the speed by 10 MPH each time. He can then slow down or stop by biting down on a pressure sensor in his mouth. To steer, he tilts his head side to side.
A central processor collects signals from the cameras and bite sensor, which then allows the mechanics of the car to steer and move. GPS technology keeps the car within 1.5 meters from the edge of the track so Schmidt has a width of about 10 meters to steer with.
“We modified a standard race track simulator to not only test the technology but to allow Sam to get used to the controls and provide feedback,” Grisby said. “His first time in the simulator Sam’s driver instincts took over and he got it up to 106 MPH. His abilities are a big part of this, because the driver’s actions affect system. His enthusiasm is incredible.”
After many hours in the simulator at Ball in Fairborn, Schmidt first got behind the wheel of the car on April 7. He completed two laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway reaching about 30 MPH. The next day he drove more than 20 laps at speeds up to 63 MPH. It had been 14 years and three months since he had driven a car.
“It was obviously exhilarating and motivating, and brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t think I’d ever drive again until we find a cure for paralysis,” he said. “One big thing I didn’t anticipate was how normal it made me feel. I can gas it up and brake it down.”
Schmidt and the team showed what the car can do during a demonstration at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Tuesday, May 6, when he reached 84 MPH. Schmidt will next do a 4-lap demonstration run at the Indianapolis 500 qualifier on May 18 before officially demonstrating the car for the public at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the 2014 Indianapolis 500 race on May 25.
The team developed this program with safety in mind. On each run, Schmidt has a co-driver who has the ability to take over at any time. His vital signs are also collected through a wireless monitoring system, similar to a smartphone app, that tracks his heart rate, skin temperature, pulse, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, and respiration.
“When you’re a quadriplegic controlling body temperature is a challenge,” said Dr. James Christensen, research psychiatrist with AFRL, 711th Human Performance Wing. “Sam also has autonomic dysreflexia, so his resting heart rate is on the low side. If he experiences pain or discomfort in a part of his body where he has no feeling, his heart rate will go down too much and the brain can’t speed it up. By continuously monitoring that, we can stop and get him out of the car to make sure he’s okay.”
According to Christensen, this technology has applications for the Air Force aeromedical evacuation teams. It could allow them to monitor every patient from a control panel, via wireless remote streaming. That data would also be recorded and can be transferred to the hospital where the patients are taken.
There are many applications for the SAM project technology in health care, mobility and managed resources for the Air Force.
“All the partners got on board with the means to solve this problem for me and a lot of other opportunities have arisen because of it,” said Schmidt. “I’m so thankful for this opportunity, It has been an amazing experience to work with this level of engineers.”
To learn more about the SAM project, visit aeroSAMcar.com or #samracecar.