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Cybathlon: Zurich 2016 Disability Sports Event Using Bionic Assistive Technology

  • Published: 2015-08-07 (Revised/Updated 2017-06-28) : Author: Disabled World : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Information regarding Cybathlon, a sporting competition for disabled athletes using bionic assistive technology, robotic prostheses, brain-computer interfaces and powered exoskeletons.

Zurich will host the first Cybathlon in autumn 2016, bringing together people with disabilities from all over the world to compete against each other using the latest assistive technologies. ETH Zurich welcomed 30 of the participating teams from 15 countries to complete a practice session at the Swiss Arena in Kloten.

Cybathlon is a planned international sporting competition for disabled athletes using bionic assistive technology, such as robotic prostheses, brain-computer interfaces and powered exoskeletons. It will be the first international professional competition of its kind, and is scheduled to take place in Zurich, Switzerland, on 8 October 2016. Cybathlon encourages the use of performance-enhancing technology such as powered exoskeletons. The Cybathlon will feature six Olympics-inspired sporting events; a bicycle race, a leg race, a wheelchair race, an exoskeleton race, an arm prosthetics race, and a computerized race for paralyzed competitors using brain-computer interfaces.

Slicing bread in the morning, pouring a cup of coffee and sitting down at the kitchen table are a part of everyday life for most people. But for people with mobility disabilities such as amputated limbs, the tasks so many of us take for granted are anything but a matter of course - and they are often difficult to accomplish without help. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 15% of the world's population is physically impaired to some degree. In order to overcome the hurdles of everyday life, many people with disabilities use assistive technologies. This is where the Cybathlon comes in: it aims to drive forward the development of these technologies in a fun and competitive environment.

Unlike events such as the Paralympics, the Cybathlon is aimed at non-athletes with physical impairments. The various courses are deliberately designed around day-to-day tasks.

"These technologies are already highly advanced in some areas," explains Robert Riener, professor at ETH Zurich and founder of the Cybathlon. "But if we judge them according to their suitability for everyday life, it becomes apparent that research and development still have a long way to go."

Powered Wheelchair Race Photo Credit: D'Arc. Studio Associates ArchitectsAbout This Image: Powered Wheelchair Race Photo Credit: D'Arc. Studio Associates ArchitectsThe practice session was a great success both for the participating groups and the Cybathlon organizers, as it helped them to see what works well and what changes still need be made before 2016. They paid particular attention to the course design: the tasks need to be relevant to participants' daily lives, pose a challenge for the participating teams and create a competition that will engage spectators.

During the practice session, there were significant differences between the five different disciplines: for example, participants were able to complete the obstacle course for motorized arm and leg prostheses with relative ease and speed. The competitors, known as pilots, successfully completed the balance beam challenge and set the table for breakfast. However, there were some difficulties with the electric wheelchairs: none of the four participating teams was able to complete all of the hurdles, and only one wheelchair was able to climb steps. Several prototypes exhibited a sort of "savant syndrome" - in other words, they were able to complete one of the six course challenges particularly well, but have room for improvement in the other challenges.

The participating teams enjoyed sharing their experiences with other technology manufacturers and research groups. "The test run was an excellent opportunity to meet other researchers and to discuss common interests and possible cooperation," explains Matjaz Mihelj from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

But the Cybathlon is a competition too.

Despite the friendly sharing of experiences and pursuit of a common goal - to provide disabled people with better assistive technologies in the future - the competitive spirit of the event was certainly not lacking. Luca Tonin from the University of Padua, Italy, also describes the importance of this reciprocal push among participants: "I believe that the Cybathlon will spur technology providers on to continue developing new solutions - in turn making it possible to set new standards in research."

Ironically, the architectural barriers and obstacles in the stadium itself also put the organizers and participants to the test, making it apparent once again how they are fighting a battle on two fronts. "As researchers, we must push technology forward, but society as a whole must also dismantle structural and technical barriers," Riener emphasizes.

Around three quarters of the 54 teams that have signed up for Cybathlon are groups from research labs.

These teams will be working hard to improve their prototypes over the next 14 months. "The technology presented at the test run was state-of-the-art, and it looks like next year's competition will be a must for researchers working in the field of assistive devices," predicts Mihelj. But the practice session has also shown that even the best technology doesn't work without an experienced user. It will be interesting to see what clever ideas the teams come up with when they compete in 2016.

The Cybathlon will be held on 8 October 2016 at the Swiss Arena in Kloten.

People with varying degrees of disability will participate in the unique competition, aided by cutting-edge assistive technologies. Each team is comprised of a technology developer and at least one "pilot" who directs the technological device. The assistive technologies used in the competition are either products that are already available on the market or prototypes from research labs.

The competition itself comprises six different disciplines, each with 8 to 16 participating teams:

The goal of the Cybathlon is to provide a platform to promote the development of assistive technologies that help people with disabilities in the best way possible. The Cybathlon is also intended to break down barriers between the general public, people with mobility disabilities and technology developers.

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