Quadriplegic Race-Car Driver Takes on Indy 500 Qualifying Race

Internet of Things technology helps Sam Schmidt steer and navigate a Corvette to speeds as high as 107 miles per hour.
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Internet of Things technology helps Sam Schmidt steer and navigate a Corvette to speeds as high as 107 miles per hour.

Meet Sam Schmidt, a successful race-car driver until he slammed into a wall at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida, 15 years ago. He’s has been a quadriplegic ever since. In the  Indianapolis 500’s qualifying race last May, Schmidt drove a 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray that he controlled by shaking his head and gnashing his teeth, according to Wired.

While he didn’t qualify for the Indy 500, it’s amazing that he was even able to navigate his car around the track at speeds as high as 97 miles per hour during the qualifying race. Since he’s got racing blood in his veins, Schmidt had to push the Corvette to speeds as high as 107 miles per hour after the qualifying race.

Arrow Electronics partnered with Craig Rehabilitation Hospital and Ball Aerospace to bring the Semi-Autonomous Motorcar (or SAM) to life. Arrow Electronics had previously built a Corvette for a paraplegic driver, who used hand controls to run the car. That’s what got the company thinking about what it would take to get a quadriplegic driving, Chakib Loucif, the company’s vice president of engineering, told Wired.

Here’s how Schmidt’s car works: He puts on an ordinary looking baseball hat that has small reflective balls all over it. Four infrared cameras mounted inside the car cabin track his head movements – whether he moves his head to the left or right to steer or backwards to go faster. Schmidt turns on the breaks by biting down, which triggers a pressure sensor in his mouth. All of these signals are verified within milliseconds and communicated to a computer that makes the steering wheel move and the foot pedals push down; it’s important that there’s verification of the movement since, otherwise, a sneeze could set off an unintended action. A GPS unit near the back of the car also checks his location 100 times each second; it then alerts Schmidt if he gets too close to the edge of the track, according to Wired.

Human intervention is nearby, too. Schmidt’s co-pilot in the car was an engineer from Arrow Electronics who could take over at any point during the race.

All of these various pieces communicate with each other through what’s called the Internet of Things. The various sensors, infrared cameras, actuators and GPS devices (most of which were purchased off the shelf) all work together to enable Schmidt to drive the Corvette, according to Tech Republic.

Ball Aerospace partnered with Arrow Electronics to enable Schmidt to steer the car around the track, one of the greatest challenges of the project.

“What we are looking at is not to take the human out of the loop, it is to use the machine to augment the human capability and improve human performance,” Timothy Choate, senior business manager of aerospace and cyberspace at the company, told Tech Republic.

The most amazing thing was that Arrow Electronics didn’t invent anything, Joe Verrengia, the director of corporate social responsibility at the company, told Tech Republic. He says that what the team did was repurpose hardware to give Schmidt and others a chance to be “drivers of their lives.”

Top photo courtesy of Arrow Electronics