Cyborgs to vie in Olympics for robot-assisted athletes

Get ready for the Cybathlon. The first Olympics for augmented humans will take place in Switzerland in 2016 and feature some of the top assistive gear around.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
2 min read

D'Arc. Studio Associates Architects

In October 2016, a few months after the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, cyborgs will descend upon Zurich for an Olympics of their own.

They'll be competing in the Cybathlon, the first championship games for robot-assisted parathletes. The games will feature some of the most advanced prosthetics, exoskeletons, wheelchairs, and brain computer interfaces around to test athletes' speed, dexterity, and concentration and showcase the potential of today's -- and tomorrow's -- assistive devices.

In one event, for example, athletes who have lost function in their legs will navigate a race course wearing a powered robotic exoskeleton along the lines of a ReWalk or Rex. They will walk up and down a ramp, step on pillars of varying heights, and walk a narrow beam. At certain points along the course, they will carry a weight.

They'll also ascend and descend stairs (at least two spotters will stand at the base of the steps to catch the Cybathletes, known as "pilots," in case they stumble. Handrails will also be mounted, though participants will be discouraged from using them.)

Similarly, in the arms prosthetics race, athletes with forearm or upper-arm amputations will be fitted with actuated prosthetic devices and charged with speedily completing tasks on hand-arm courses, including one that requires following a metal wire with a conductive wire loop -- without touching the wire.

D'Arc. Studio Associates Architects

Those paralyzed from the neck down will also have events to choose from. One, the FES bike race, will feature cycles that allow riders to pedal around a circular course with help from Functional Electrical Stimulation devices, which apply small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore or improve their function.

Pilots competing in the BCI race, meanwhile, will use a brain computer interface to control an avatar in a horse or car racing game filled with obstacles such as trenches, rocks, and bushes. The game has yet to be designed; a prototype will appear on the Cybathlon Web site once it has been so teams can train.

To participate in this event, pilots need to have completely lost motor function below the neck, though "no specific diagnosis (e.g. stroke, SCI, ALS) is excluded by default," the guidelines say. "Pilots will be judged on a case-by-case basis with regard to motor and cognitive impairment."

The Cybathlon will be hosted by Switzerland's ETH Zurich and National Centre of Competence in Research Robotics, which was launched by the Swiss National Science Foundation to develop robotic technology that improves humans' quality of life.

The main objectives of the novel Olympics, according to the organizers, are to promote the development of advanced assistive systems; improve public awareness of human-focused robotic technologies; and give robot-assisted parathletes a new forum for showing off some superhuman feats.