On the evening of Oct. 10, 2006, Dennis DeGray’s mind was nearly severed from his body. After a day of fishing, he returned to his home in Pacific Grove, Calif., and realized he had not yet taken out the trash or recycling. It was raining fairly hard, so he decided to sprint from his doorstep to the garbage cans outside with a bag in each hand. As he was running, he slipped on a patch of black mold beneath some oak trees, landed hard on his chin, and snapped his neck between his second and third vertebrae.
While recovering, DeGray, who was 53 at the time, learned from his doctors that he was permanently paralyzed from the collarbones down. With the exception of vestigial twitches, he cannot move his torso or limbs. “I’m about as hurt as you can get and not be on a ventilator,” he told me. For several years after his accident, he “simply laid there, watching the History Channel” as he struggled to accept the reality of his injury.
Some time later, while at a fund-raising event for stem-cell research, he met Jaimie Henderson, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University. The pair got to talking about robots, a subject that had long interested DeGray, who grew up around his family’s machine shop. As DeGray remembers it, Henderson captivated him with a single question: Do you want to fly a drone?