First this year we had the Olympics, and then we had the Paralympics and finally its time for the third and final set of events, the Cybathlon. A completely new and innovative occasion, the event, which gets underway in Zurich, Switzerland on Saturday 8 October, is a competition that will allow 74 athletes from 25 countries to use bionic assistive technology to help them win glory. Each athlete has a disability and will use a mixture of powered exoskeletons, limbs and wheelchairs to help them get across the finishing line. It’s not all about winning though; each of the six disciplines is designed to pioneer new products to help people with disabilities. It promises to be a glimpse into the future. We sat down with Professor Dr. Robert Riener, the chief organiser of the event, to see what it’s all about.
Why are we having a Cybathlon? What was the idea behind it and what is it looking to achieve?
One of the main ideas is to promote the development of useful and functional devices for people with disabilities. Nowadays assistive devices aren’t satisfactory for people so much so that prosthetic devices for arms are not being used by 60 per cent of people with arm amputations, as they are too heavy, too annoying or just not functional enough. Most leg devices aren’t powered with an electric motor and this makes hills and walking up stairs very challenging.
All this triggered my idea to organise something where people can compete against each other and showcase new technology. At the races, each event relates to daily life so the competitors are climbing stairs, opening doors, sitting down on sofas and so on.
Does the Cybathlon want to be the ‘Bionic Olympics’ or does it want to be something different?
We can’t call it ‘Olympics’ because of legal reasons. ‘Bionic Olympics’ is a nice name but I don’t really like the term ‘Cyborg Olympics’ as we’re dealing with humans not robots!
What is the entry process for competitors?
There aren’t many. For example in the prosthetic race, the pilots must be amputated at the knee joint or higher and in the exoskeleton and bike races, their spinal cords must be completely paralysed. This is because we want to make sure that the power is coming from a device not from a human.
What new assistive technologies will be on show?
A team from Sweden is using a prosthetic device that is implanted into the bone of the patient. Additionally, 12 channels of electrodes are fixed into the stump of the upper arm and can detect motion and tension. This is transferred to the robotic hand from which the patient can control it. Another impressive technology is in the bike race. Functional electrical stimulation (FES) can stimulate the muscles of completely paralysed people with electrodes and current impulses, which are implanted into the pilot. They are different electrodes than what are used in the prosthetics race. In the prosthetic race the electrodes are only sensing but in the bike race are stimulating as well. They are very powerful! With exoskeletons, we have a lot of new cutting-edge technology and there may be a lot of surprises at the Cybathlon, I don’t really know!
Have many big developers have got on board?
Only about ¼ of the technology is from companies. The majority of teams are research labs from universities. They bring with them very novel technology, some are commercially available but some needed to be fine-tuned to improve performance. Everyone has a chance to win! I didn’t really care how large the companies were. I was hoping that we got companies who are successful in the market but I realised that some are afraid of failing and losing face. Some of the successful student teams may go on to found companies of their own and create beneficial technologies for people with disabilities.
If it’s successful, will this become an annual event?
I’m already collecting new ideas! There will be a big event, even bigger than this one, every four years that is similar to the Olympics. It will be held in Switzerland as we get support from the country’s universities and sponsors to do it again but it will be larger and held over more days with many more disciplines. We will also hold fairs, go to schools and organise road shows, incorporating children and bring them in contact with people of disabilities.
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