New Discoveries

Case Study: I-Drive Head Array

A Defense Contractor Pays It Forward

Stealth Products’ new I-Drive head array enables ATPs to dial in unique performance features such as sensor engagement settings. But just as unique is the I-Drive’s star-spangled backstory of two companies that have more in common than it appears at first glance.

I-Drive Head Array 

A company (top) that helps U.S. armed forces be all that they can be collaborated with Stealth Products to create the I-Drive (above).

One Good Turn

I-Drive’s story has a family connection: Trident Research’s president, Mike Cardoza, is married to the sister of Stealth Products’ CEO (Lorenzo Romero) and director of sales & marketing (Gabriel Romero). But the story actually began with a problem: Trident Senior Software Engineer Andy Adamez was managing an Army project involving weapons scoring. “What I was in need of was some really good turnaround, good-quality manufacturing: mechanical assemblies for my sensors,” Adamez says. “I’d been using a couple of machine shops around town, and then Mike mentioned the possibility of using Stealth as a manufacturer for those parts.

“They have enormous capabilities over there, a lot more than I’d seen in other places, and they’re under a lot more scrutiny than some of the manufacturers we deal with. When we’re talking about the medical industry, instantly what pops up in my head is standards: Everything’s got to be spot on. We started using Stealth, and I was really impressed with what they did for us.”

How impressed? Adamez says the folks at Trident began saying, “Let’s see if we can’t take some of our electronics expertise and solve a problem for Stealth.”

A Smart-Switch Design

Despite Trident’s interest, Gabe Romero still had to sell his idea.

“These guys are busy,” Romero says. “It’s not like they were looking for work. I’m humbled they had time to meet with me. They have a very important business, which is protecting our country and giving the military the best technology that it can have.”

Romero had in mind a new head array that could offer independent mobility to consumers who couldn’t otherwise drive a power chair. He described to Adamez and his team the kind of clients who use Stealth Products’ technology and why. He didn’t hold back when listing typical client challenges: cerebral palsy, ALS, muscle tone, tremors, fatigue.

“What was amazing,” Romero says now, “is I never got ‘That can’t be done.’ I think they understood the importance of why it needed to be done. So instead, they said, ‘We’ll need to spend time to figure that out.’”

Though complex rehab was new to Trident, Romero says, “They deal with a lot of motor controls in their industry, so they know what it is for motors not to be balanced, or when you’re dealing with proportional devices, how they react differently. They understood that already. So they cleaned up a lot of problems people complained about in our industry when it came to alternative drive controls.”

When Romero tested the prototype, “I could feel the difference. It almost felt intuitive, that it knew what I was about to do.” With other head arrays, Romero says, “I would tilt my head to left and hear the motors engage. But with this one, when it felt my head going that way, it knew it needed to prepare for that type of signal. It felt a lot smoother in turns.”

Adamez says, “We’ve been able to start from a blank piece of paper and say, ‘Let’s design a mechanism for controlling the chair that does it in a smooth fashion, that does gross oversampling with some filtering that will allow it to smooth out the reactions. When you have a standard switch, it’s going to come on at full strength. But the way we’ve set up the device, it’s a smart switch — several smart switches — and you’ve got one brain in there that’s interpreting what the user’s trying to do and making the decision that corresponds to that. That smooth feel is a product of that, the firmware inside the device.”

He adds, “Like any other system we make at Trident, we’re going to try to make it expandable and have more capability than it needs today because technology turnover is so rapid now. You don’t want to put the lowest-denominator chip in a device, because you may be writing firmware for it for the next three or four years. You want the design to have a little life to it and not be obsolete the moment you ship it.”

Hope in Dark Times

Despite the challenge of the head array project, Romero says Trident staffers were eager to work on it and are asking when the next collaboration will begin.

“The opportunity to work together was really mutually beneficial,” Mike Cardoza says. “For us, it was an opportunity to diversify, but more important than that, to actually get into a market where the work that we do can have meaning, can have an impact.”

Trident employees share photos and videos of I-Drive successes, including a woman at an event in Russia who has athetoid CP, but was able to drive for the first time in her life thanks to the new head array. Adamez’s son survived cancer as a toddler, and Adamez recalls the many people who helped his young family through the crisis. Working on the I-Drive is a way “to be that person for someone else. I’m on the other end of it now. I’m helping make devices that will give someone else hope when it seems really dark.”

“It’s been extremely rewarding, and it’s brought a sense of satisfaction that we don’t tend to get all the time in our defense work,” Cardoza agrees. “Every once in awhile, Gabe will shoot me a video of somebody using the head array, and you see this big smile on their face and the challenges that this in some small way has helped them overcome.”

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Mobility Management.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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