Cybathlon: A bionics competition for people with disabilities
Posted by admin on 1st September 2016

Millions of people worldwide rely on orthotics, prosthetics, wheelchairs and other assistive devices to improve their quality of life. In the United States alone, there are more than 1.6 million people with limb amputations. The World Health Organization estimates the number of wheelchair users to be about 65 million people worldwide.

It is important to improve the daily lives of people with disabilities or physical weaknesses, and allow them to be more independent. Unfortunately, current assistive technology does not fully address their needs. Wheelchairs cannot climb stairs; arm prostheses do not enable versatile hand functions. Powered support devices have limited battery life. The list goes on and on.

Many people need help climbing stairs.
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella, Author provided

People with disabilities are often disappointed with their devices’ performance, and choose not to use them. The main objection is that designs ignore user needs, such as individual preferences for device appearance, sizing and fitting for comfort and function, effort and time required to put on and take off, and device durability and weight.

Beyond the design issues, these tools are expensive. Cost shuts many people out of using them, regardless of how well they work.“ And stairs, steep ramps, narrow doorways and low tables can make the use of assistive technologies very cumbersome or even impossible.

It is an industry ripe for innovation. To encourage this work, I have founded a new kind of competition promoting the development of useful technologies. In the Paralympics, parathletes aim to achieve maximum performance in sporting challenges. In our new contest, the Cybathlon, people with physical disabilities will compete against each other at tasks of daily life, with the aid of advanced assistive devices – including robotic ones.

Focusing on teamwork and technology

In the Cybathlon, what’s being tested is not just the abilities of human athletes, nor only the equipment they use. Rather, it’s their symbiosis, balancing good technical performance of the device, and its control by the athlete.

Competitors will face off in six disciplines, for people with either limb amputations or limb paralysis of varying degrees, such as occurs after a spinal cord injury. We’ll organize a race focused on each of these technologies: powered leg prostheses, powered arm prostheses, functional electrical stimulation (FES) driven bikes, powered wheelchairs, and powered exoskeletons. The sixth competition is a racing game with virtual avatars controlled by brain-computer interfaces.

Teams work together: a pilot in control, with others supporting and operating the technology.
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella, Author provided

We ran test sessions in July 2015, and have slated the full competition for October 8 in Zurich. The devices involved can be prototypes developed by research labs or companies, or commercially available products. Competitors will be called pilots, as they must control a device that enhances their mobility.

Competing teams each consist of a pilot, scientists and technology providers, making the Cybathlon also a competition among companies and research laboratories. As a result there are two awards for each competition’s winning team: a medal for the pilot and a cup for the company or lab that made the device.

The six competitions

The competitions will simulate challenges people with disabilities face in daily life – situations that non-disabled people don’t think twice about but that can be insurmountable for others.

Powered prosthetic legs Most leg prostheses require their users to swing the artificial leg just so, to properly align the knee, lower leg and foot. And they cannot transfer muscular power through the knee, using thigh muscles to help climb stairs, for example.