by Tina Crist

Scott GrigsbyScott Grigsby has always loved science and knew he’d end up involved in something technical someday. “But I didn’t think I’d be doing anything like this!” he admitted.

As a neuroscientist and program manager at Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Grigsby led the SAM (Semi-Autonomous Motorcar) project to nationally renowned success and, most importantly, was part of the team that gave Sam Schmidt, an injured IndyCar driver with no ability to move his arms or legs, the ability to once again drive at high speeds on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Opportunities like that are once in a lifetime,” Grigsby said. “Seeing Sam drive again for the first time in the 14 years since his near-fatal racing accident, was an amazing and immensely satisfying experience,” he said. 
“At first, we all thought, ‘this is nuts!’” Grigsby said about the request to follow up a racecar that had been modified with automated hand controls for a paraplegic person, with something that would work for complete quadriplegics.


But Grigsby and his team thrive on challenge, and the question nagged at his brain: how do you enable a quadriplegic to safely control a high-powered sports car at speeds up to 100 mph, and get the whole project done, start to finish, in less than nine months? And, Sam Schmidt would have to really control the car, not just ride in an autonomous vehicle. Could it really be done?
Grigsby’s curiosity won out. After studying Schmidt’s capabilities and brainstorming about possible technologies, the Ball team designed a system based on reliable motion tracking technology, the same systems used by Hollywood for motion capture. With this system, they tracked Schmidt’s head movements down to less than a millimeter, and applying some sophisticated algorithms, used those movements to control steering and acceleration. A pressure sensor embedded in a bite mold allowed Schmidt to slow and brake. 



Grigsby remembers the first time he and Ball Chief Technologist Glen Geisen, climbed into the simulator at Ball’s Systems Engineering Solutions facility in Dayton, Ohio, and saw the technology work. “We were amazed at how well it worked right from the start,” he said. “You never know – in your head, you’re always thinking about all of the little things that can go wrong, but all the while in your gut, you know it just has to work,” added Grigsby.

Scott Grigsby takes a test run in the SAM car simulator while Ball’s Glen Geisen observes

After his first run in the simulator, Schmidt was speechless. In his second session, he completed a 2.5-mile virtual lap in 42.55 seconds at an average speed of 211.5 mph! 

Later, after spending weeks in Indianapolis calibrating cameras and integrating the sophisticated systems into a futuristic $65,000 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray, Grigsby watched his teammate, Ball Chief Technologist Glen Geisen, don a hat festooned with reflectors that are tracked by the infrared cameras on the car’s dashboard – and by tilting his head – turn the car’s steering wheel for the first time. Soon after, it was Schmidt’s turn at several successful test runs, and finally, on May 18, 2014, Schmidt, the three-time Indianapolis 500 starter, drove at speeds up to 97 mph around the racetrack in a ceremonial Indy 500 qualification lap. He was in total control of the car.



With the help of Sam Schmidt in the driver’s seat, Scott Grigsby fine-tunes the SAM car simulatorAccording to Grigsby, “Afterward Sam told the press how normal he felt when driving the car,  which I didn’t fully understand at the time. But now I understand it. We gave him his old life back – if even for just a few minutes on the track that day.”

Grigsby has had many Eureka! moments in his career, something he attributes to Lycoming College for igniting his passion for physics and how the human brain works. 

He was mentored by the Lycoming College’s Dr. Mort Fineman, who challenged Grigsby to never accept the easy path. “He always said to take the more difficult path, as that is where the greatest lessons are learned,” recounted Grigsby. 
“I liked his classes so much. They were challenging. I even ended up becoming president of the Student Physics Society,” Grigsby admitted, adding that Lycoming “provided me with a really great, well-rounded education.” “Mostly, Lycoming encouraged me to be curious, and gave me the tools to help satisfy that curiosity.”


The lessons he learned at Lycoming hold true for students today. “If you put in the time and effort, you can do amazing things. Find what you love and put in the effort. Nothing is impossible. Keep the door open to new ideas, and don’t be afraid to dream!”

It was Lycoming’s Fineman who urged him to pursue graduate school, and Grigsby studied biophysics and optometry at Ohio State University, earning a Ph.D. and a post-doc position researching the human visual system and how the brain processes color and spatial and temporal information. 

In a fluke of unbeknownst foreshadowing to the SAM project, Grigsby landed at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, working on the “Super Cockpit,” which sought to apply virtual reality technologies to the cockpit environment using helmet-mounted displays. 

“After working on Department of Defense programs for most of my professional career, SAM brought us all into the exciting world of professional IndyCar racing while at the same time gave us the opportunity to develop unique enabling technologies for the disabled community,” said Grigsby.

At Ball Aerospace, Grigsby continues his work with human interfaces in the areas of alternative controls, speech processing, decision support, command and control, and simulation and training.

Grigsby and the Ball team are determined that Schmidt’s success won’t be the finish line to the SAM project, but an inroad to more human-machine teaming technologies that range from fully autonomous systems with no human input to minimally autonomous systems with primarily human inputs for empowering disabled people as well as used for commercial and government uses.


“In a follow-on effort in support of one of our Air Force customers, one of Sam’s IndyCar drivers wore biosensors during a race so we could gather data about the physiological effects of racing,” explained Grigsby. “These drivers are amazing athletes; it takes incredible strength and stamina to drive a racecar at 200 mph under forces of up to 4.5 Gs for hours. Of course, we want to take SAM to the next level, too. We want SAM 2.0 to go beyond the Indy track and become a more Intelligent Control System for various applications,” he said.

“I’ve done interesting things in my career – virtual reality, virtual cockpit for fighter jets – I’ve supported many government projects, but this one – to see Sam drive that car using only his head – it was unbelievable!” Grigsby said. “Sam Schmidt is an amazing person and he showed us every day that life is what you make it and we are only limited by the limits we put on ourselves.”

Race car driver Sam Schmidt in the Ball SAM car

The SAM project is a collaborative venture between Ball, U.S. Air Force, Arrow Electronics, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Falci Adaptive Motorsports

Ball SAM Race Car Project

Technology developed by Ball has enabled a quadriplegic race car driver to drive once again around the Indy 500 racetrack.