Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Paralyzed racer will steer Corvette with head movements at Indy 500

Sam Schmidt and the SAM (semi-autonomous motorcar) Chevrolet Corvette

Fourteen years ago, Sam Schmidt was lapping the Walt Disney World Speedway while preparing for the upcoming Indy Racing League season when he crashed. He spent five weeks on a respirator, and when he did come off, he discovered that he'd lost the use of his arms and legs.

Despite this, he hasn't left the sport that he loves. He's the co-owner of Schmidt Petersen Motorsports, which has counted among its drivers Simon Pagenaud, Katherine Legge, Alex Tagliani and the late Dan Wheldon.

At this year's Indianapolis 500, Schmidt will be back behind the wheel, handicap be damned. He's teamed with Arrow Electronics, who has put together a semi-autonomous Chevrolet Corvette Stingray for Schmidt to lap at the Brickyard.

Arrow, along with Ball Aerospace, Schmidt Peterson, the US Air Force Research Lab and non-profit Falci Adaptive Motorsports has developed a user interface that will allow a driver to control a car simply by moving their head. According to our tech savvy friends at Gizmodo, the system works with infrared markers and overhead cameras to measure how and where a driver's head moves. Basically, Schmidt will turn his head right or left to turn, which makes sense. He can also bite down to brake or tilt his head back to accelerate.

For extra safety, the car, called SAM (short for semi-autonomous motorcar), is fitted with a GPS system that will keep Schmidt at least three feet from Indy's notorious walls. There will also be a human backup in the passenger seat that will be able to step in if any of the systems fail.

Paraplegics have been able to drive through hand controls for some time. It's heartening to see quadriplegics begin to regain the same abilities. Here's hoping Schmidt's Indy outing is a success.
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