Quadriplegic drives racing 'vette with help from AF performance lab

  • Published
  • By Ted Theopolos
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Human performance technologies developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory, along with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., were on display here May 6 as quadriplegic Sam Schmidt, a former Indy Racing League driver, got back behind the wheel once again.

The test took place on the 7,500 foot runway just south of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Schmidt drove a Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (SAM), achieving speeds up to 84 mph in the 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray using human-to-machine interface systems. It exceeded the previous top speed of 78 mph achieved at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) two weeks earlier. Schmidt sustained a C-3/4/5 spinal cord injury during a race testing accident on Jan. 6, 2000, while practicing for the season-opening Indy Racing League event at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando.

Schmidt controls the car by wearing a ball cap with reflective spheres that is monitored by infrared cameras around the dash board in front of him. He controls the car by moving his head left to drive the car to the left or right to make the car turn right. Schmidt increases speed by moving his head forward and back to increase the set speed by 10 mph each time. He controls braking by a biting down on a pressure sensor he has in his month. The harder he bites, the more the car decelerates or stops. For safety concerns Glen Geisen, a Ball Aerospace chief technologist, was a passenger with Schmidt and could take control of the car from his passenger seat.

For his first lap down the runway Schmidt maneuvered the car from left to right and back again to demonstrate the control of the car. The second lap he accelerated the car to the fastest speed he has yet driven the car. However, in a car simulator at Ball's facility in Fairborn, Schmidt was able able to drive the IMS track at speeds exceeding 100 mph successfully, which he expects to do at the real IMS soon.

Schmidt said he was elated to be offered this opportunity to drive again but had some conditions.

"I had two parameters for joining this project," said Schmidt. "One, I'd be the one driving the car. Two, I could drive the car over 100 mph."

Helping Schmidt achieve this goal safely is James Christensen, research psychologist with AFRL's 711 Human Performance Wing. Christensen also is the lead Air Force scientist for the SAM.

"Through radio wireless telemetry we are able to monitor Sam's heart rate, breathing, pulse, oxygenation, and skin temperature," said Christensen. "Being a quadriplegic, his nerves still work below the severed injured area of the spine but the impulse through the spinal cord does not reach the brain. In Sam's case he has a low heart rate of 50-55 beats per minute. If something physical happens, his heart rate may go lower causing other physical functions of the body to react. That's one reason we need to monitor him, but so far we've encountered no issues with Sam."

Christensen added this is just one project that will open doors for further applications.

"This type of monitoring lays the ground work for other combined human-automation systems," said Christensen. "Such systems could monitor the alertness of a pilot flying or Airmen in the battle field to ensure they are fully alert. It also can be used on patients during aeromedical flights to monitor from a centralized location on the aircraft instead of using bed side monitoring. A standard laptop or Notepad could monitor eight patients simultaneously and record their vital signs which, in turn, can be downloaded and given to the receiving hospital staff for their evaluation and records."

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Schmidt, referring to the technology that demonstrates his ability to control the Stingray.

"I'm thankful to the base and partners for this opportunity," Schmidt continued. "When I first got behind the wheel -- to be able to control the car -- it made me feel normal for the first time in 14 years. That normal feeling is unbelievable."

Glen Geisen was there helping with the car's technology located in the back of the car. He has worked on the project with 711 HPW since the project started five months ago.

"It was Sam's goal for us was to create a car that he could drive and not one that would drive itself," said Geisen.

"Watching Sam drive a car and seeing the joy it brought him was personally rewarding. It's all about people helping people," said Ball Aerospace Senior Business Area Manager, Timothy Choate.

Schmidt will drive the car again May 18 at IMS in a time gap between cars qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Later this year Schmidt also hopes to attend the World of Speed event at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to race and become the fastest person with quadriplegia in the world.

"Get back to racing is part of the plan," said Schmidt. "I believe in my lifetime it will happen."

In addition to the Air Force and Ball Aerospace, the SAM Project is a collaborative venture between other companies that include Arrow Electronics, which acquired the Corvette Stingray, Falci Adaptive Motorsports and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.