Cyborg athlete goes for gold on robotic legs

Athletes with disabilities will converge on Switzerland Saturday for the first championships for robot-assisted humans. One of them takes CNET through the pre-competition paces.

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Leslie Katz
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As part of his daily training for Saturday's big race, Mark Daniel stands up from his chair, takes four or five small steps, turns around to retrace them and sits back down.

Those moves might not seem rigorous, but Daniel is paralyzed from the waist down. He gets up and down steering a 75-pound (34-kilogram) robotic exoskeleton.

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Mark Daniel, who's paralyzed from the waist down, practices sitting and standing in his Mina2 robotic exoskeleton. The sofa is low, so those moves are particularly challenging.


The 26-year-old spends hours a day preparing to go for the gold at the first ever Cybathlon, in Zurich, Switzerland. There, more than 70 robot-assisted athletes from 25 countries will compete in six different events using advanced assistive devices that afford them mobility they wouldn't otherwise have.

"The more time I spend in the 'exo,' the more I feel like it's a part of me, because with it I can do more," said Daniel, who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 17. "Abilities get brought back to life."

At this novel Olympics for augmented humans, some "pilots," as they're called, will wear powered arm and leg prostheses, some will drive powered wheelchairs, and some, like Daniel, will compete strapped into exoskeletons like a ReWalk, Rex or eLegs.

In one race, cyclists paralyzed from the neck down will navigate a course thanks to electrical stimulation that makes their muscles contract. In another event, pilots will navigate an avatar around a computer racing game using only a brain-computer interface.

"In contrast to the Paralympics, the Cybathlon is not focused on exceptional athletic performance, but on building the closest possible connections between everyday robotic assistance devices and the people who use them," reads the website for the event. "Through the organization of the Cybathlon we want to remove barriers between people with disabilities, the public and technology developers."

Daniel will compete in the powered exoskeleton race, in which athletes who have completely lost use of their legs to a spinal cord injury navigate an obstacle course that tests their speed, dexterity and concentration.

Fitted in a safety harness, they will, for example, walk around poles, step over stones, climb stairs and walk across a ramp to open a door and pass through a doorway. The pilot who completes the most everyday tasks in the least amount of time wins.

Watch this: Athlete paralyzed from waist down trains for race in robotic exoskeleton

Daniel, the only US pilot competing in his event, will race in the Mina2, an exoskeleton custom-made for him at the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, or IHMC. The nonprofit research institute out of Florida's state university system aims to push the limits of mobility devices for the disabled, and Daniel, who lives in Pensacola, works there full-time helping with the design and testing of the Mina. The IHMC does not commercialize its innovations, but does license then.

"With my past growing up on motor sports, I tend to look at the exoskeleton the same way I did whenever I was riding dirt bikes," said Daniel, an action junkie who stays strong through isometric exercises, swimming and kayaking. "I have to learn what it can do and can't do and go from there. The stakes are just a lot higher."

Higher because the powerful machine -- which requires electronic motors, microcontrollers, sensors and a sophisticated user interface operated from a display attached to one of Daniel's crutches -- could injure him if not operated correctly. And because of the profound possibilities it, and other devices like it, represent.

Cyborg athlete trains for big race (pictures)

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Today, robotic exoskeletons are mainly used in rehabilitation centers to increase strength, combat muscle atrophy and encourage blood circulation. Typically, they have adjustable components to fit a range of wearers.

The Mina2 has been completely built and tailored for Daniel using lightweight carbon-fiber parts and steel, brass and aluminum components manufactured by rapid-prototyping company Star Prototype, which also signed on as one of Team IHMC's Cybathlon sponsors.

"Every piece of the Mina2 needs to be created to enhance Mark's performance rather than hamper it," said
Gordon Styles, founder and president of Star Prototype.

Personalizing the Mina2 for Daniel meant measuring his hips and the distance between his joints and modeling the shape of his legs. It also required gauging his legs' range of motion, then adjusting the actuators to replicate that natural range.

"It's important that it fits Mark perfectly, because without sensation, he can't feel if it's not fitting right," said Peter Neuhaus, senior research scientist at IHMC and head of the 11-person engineering team that helped Daniel train and has traveled to Switzerland, with all his gear, to support him at the championships.

The time and materials that went into creating a Mina2 just for Daniel might not be practical yet on a larger scale, Neuhaus conceded, but the effort still yields glimpses into what these cutting-edge devices can achieve.

Small ankle, big difference

The Mina2 boasts a feature new to robotic exoskeletons: powered ankles whose stiffness and angles can be adjusted. These more advanced ankles lead to faster, more stable walking and, perhaps most importantly, let Daniel stand without leaning on his crutches.

"I can actually stand and have a conversation eye to eye with everybody, which for me is really a big deal," Daniel said. "Most of the time when I have a conversation with anyone, I'm in a seated position...and the entire conversation, they're looking down at me. That sets a huge precedent on the control of the conversation and the effect that has on the subconscious mind."

The Cybathlon coincides with National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, a nationwide US campaign sponsored by the United States Department of Labor to celebrate the skills that employees with disabilities bring to workplaces.

With the Cybathon just days away, Daniel is already looking ahead to his next big challenge: becoming the first paraplegic to try completing the 4,834-mile (7,780-kilometer) American Discovery Trail that stretches coast to coast from Delaware to California.