DU Alumni

Engineering grad gets up to speed with Arrow’s SAM car

As part of the SAM team, Will Pickard spends time in the lab, in the garage and at the racetrack — wherever his skills are needed that particular day. Photo courtesy of Arrow

As part of the SAM team, Will Pickard spends time in the lab, in the garage and at the racetrack — wherever his skills are needed that particular day. Photo courtesy of Arrow

He didn’t know it at the time, but as an engineering student at DU, Will Pickard was putting together the perfect resumé for the job he has now — part of the elite SAM Project team at Denver-based Arrow Electronics.

The company took on the engineering challenge in 2013 to help Indy Racing League driver Sam Schmidt — rendered quadriplegic by a crash in 2000 — get back behind the wheel. They’re doing so by modifying a 2014 Corvette C7 Stingray so that Schmidt can operate it by moving his head and blowing air into a plastic tube.

Pickard (BS ’14), an associate applications engineer at Arrow, joined the SAM team in 2015 as a sensors expert.

“The original team had run the SAM car at Indy Motor Speedway in May of 2014, with Sam driving at 107 miles an hour,” Pickard says. “I was brought on the team for what was termed SAM car 2.0. The idea there was that the car had originally run on a big oval, so the input required being able to turn left and use a lot of throttle. They wanted to be able to do a road course, which is a completely different set of control challenges. So we were tasked — on SAM car 2.0, which was when I was brought in — to basically redesign the control interface to allow Sam to be able to drive the street circuit of Long Beach Grand Prix.”

While at what is now DU’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, Pickard worked with a full engine dynamometer, which measures a car’s horsepower and torque, and helped set up motion-capture sensors at the school’s Human Dynamics Lab at the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness.

“The interesting thing about that is that we now use the same technology in the SAM car,” Pickard says. “It’s an array of infrared cameras that tracks the position of reflective markers — like what they use to create Gollum. I helped do the setup at the DU lab, and when I got to the SAM car, we’re using the exact same technology. I was like, ‘Oh! I’ve seen this before. I know how to run all this technology.’ All this random experience I picked up at DU all kind of came together in the SAM car.”

Pickard’s path to Arrow started just before graduation in 2014. Representatives from the company came to campus to talk to engineering students, and Pickard — a self-proclaimed “lifelong geek” — was intrigued. He started at Arrow as an intern days after Commencement and soon joined the company’s Engineering Solutions Center, supporting microcontrollers, firmware and MEMS sensors.

When he joined the SAM Project, Pickard says, it was like “being shot out of a cannon, and then a booster rocket kicks off and shoots you even further into the stratosphere. All of us who become engineers, when we start out, these are the type of problems we want to be tackling. These are the kind of big bold problems you want to go after. It’s an incredible opportunity to work on something like this, especially this soon after completing a degree.”

As part of the SAM team, Pickard spends time in the lab, in the garage and at the racetrack — wherever his skills are needed that particular day.

“I’m a test driver for the vehicle now, and before we put Sam in the car we want to make sure we’ve tested the systems, make sure everything is operating properly,” says Pickard, who has worked long days on racetracks in Colorado, Texas and California. “On some days I’ll be sitting in the driver’s seat and our co-driver will be sitting in the passenger seat, and I’ll be driving around using my head, testing the system.”

Pickard’s interest in engineering started at an early age, progressing from wood blocks and LEGOs to AP computer science classes at Kent Denver School, where he now is a volunteer coach for a robotics program launched by a former classmate.

And though there are new technological challenges for him at Arrow every day, it’s the human connection that has him the most enthused.

“Working with Sam has been the most amazing part of this entire process,” Pickard says. “He’s an amazing individual. Sam has some very unique talents in that he was an Indy car driver before his injury. The amazing thing is that the injury didn’t change Sam. It didn’t change his talents. He is a racecar driver, and he has a natural innate understanding of vehicle dynamics and car control. He didn’t stop being a racecar driver; he just didn’t have a car to drive.”





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