Cybathlon – the new Paralympic-style event that will see man and machine race as one – has been created to advance engineering and technology that assists people with disabilities. However, it will also put on a spectacle that is unrivalled in the world of sport. Elisha Chauhan reports.
Imperial College London received a personal invite from Cybathlon founder Professor Robert Riener to put together a team to enter the inaugural event. Under the management of Dr. Ian Radcliffe, Imperial runs the ‘Sports Innovation Challenge’ programme that designs equipment for Paralympic athletes.
Dr. Ian Radcliffe
Sports Innovation Challenge Project Manager
Imperial College London
At the moment we’re looking to enter the powered arm prosthetics race, the BCI (brain-computer interface) race, the powered exoskeleton and wheelchair race. We are also considering entering the powered leg prosthetic race, but that’s still under consideration.
Whereas other entrants may be racing with off-the-shelf materials and existing prosthetics, our devices are very much early-stage developments; for example, we are using different control systems that are targeted at people who have a congenital amputation [born without a limb], rather than people who have lost an arm.
Our pilots will be a combination of Paralympians and amateur athletes. We haven’t completely nailed down our final pilots, though, as we did have two very good pilots lined up, but one of them, Jonathan Brough, has been told he can’t enter for safety reasons as he has a pacemaker.
The race tasks are pretty demanding – for example, the exoskeleton race includes 15-degree inclines and going up stairs. That’s a huge risk, so we’re trying to make sure our pilots are going to be safe in all possible situations, therefore all of our devices need a complete risk assessment from our own safety committee, which is quite a rigorous procedure.
A good thing about Cybathlon is it’s a chance for researchers and manufacturers to get together and show off what they’re doing. It’s about collaboration and progress in the field, so it’s not a competition in the same way that an athletics meet is a competition; it’s more like a conference with a showcase to it.
However, there’s no way that a prosthetic arm that’s been developed on a budget of a couple of thousand pounds by students is going to compete against a £30,000 arm developed by manufacturers over seven years. I think we need to be realistic about what the achievements are going to be, and whether they will be feasible.
It’s hard to say whether the event will be entertaining. The organisers won’t want Cybathlon to look like [TV show] Robot Wars, but some of the races are going to be quite straight forward, like the bike race, which won’t be too dissimilar from watching Olympic cycling.
We’re talking about real people competing, so if it focuses too much on the Robot Wars aspect, it will lose some of its appeal – the event would become too gimmicky.
The other races are going to be interesting – certainly different – but it’s not going to be like watching wheelchair rugby [murderball] at the Paralympic Games. How well the events will translate to TV or for stadium spectators I really don’t know. However, though the pilots may not all be Paralympic-level athletes, they still have a competitive edge to them, and still want to do their best and perform on the day.
I’d hope that the Cybathlon will be of mainstream interest, because it’s the cutting-edge of engineering – it’s the bionic man made real – and it’s got human interest as well as new development and technology. So I’d hope people can appreciate that as well as the competitive edge.
I think we’d compete in Cybathlon again in future editions – fingers crossed it is part of an ongoing development. Imperial College is also looking to increase the amount of effort we put into rehabilitation engineering in general, and Cybathlon is a key part of that.
Established in 1997, German firm Brain Products specialises in the human brain and nervous system. It is best known for products providing in-depth EEG (electroencephalography) analysis – a non-invasive means of recording the electrical activity of the brain. The company offers support to over a thousand universities and scientific research institutes across the world and is providing a select number of teams participating in Cybathlon with free hire of its products.
Dr. Patrick Britz
Some people dream about being able to walk, and when they think about the action of walking – even though they cannot – the intention is hidden in the brain somewhere amongst all the noise. We can extract that intention with a bit of clever math, and a very good signal quality, through a piece of headwear.
A couple of disciplines in Cybathlon require this technology, one of which is the race to see who can walk best or fastest using brain control (Brain-Computer Interface Race). A lot of people come to us for our technology because, at the moment, we are the leading company in EEG research. We want to give people who only have part of the expertise the chance to take part in Cybathlon.
Obviously the other reason for lending our technology for free is because there’s a fair chance a team who is successful in Cybathlon will want to purchase our products afterwards, so there is a marketing cause as well.
We are a research-only company, so the wider public are not able to buy our products. We just hope that other researchers see us as a good partner. The research community is very connected – everyone talks to everyone – and reputation is key. If we help people, then later on people may talk about it at a conference, and when they need to purchase EEG equipment, there is a very high likelihood that they will come and talk to us.
It would also be a massive additional challenge if the teams had to put up money to buy equipment. You can’t just use your day-to-day lab equipment, because you have to be mobile and devices have to be robust against movement, which is very untypical for EEG.
Normal EEG subjects sit in an electrical shield cabin – if the subject moves you lose your data, so you need special equipment. An exoskeleton costs around $100,000 alone.
When selecting which teams to work with, we have a two-step process where we evaluate what teams request and where we see if their ideas are viable. From having contact with 20 to 30 teams, four or five will probably end up using our equipment. It’s hard to tell, though, because the application process is still not over, and I know from experience that a lot things happen at the last minute.
The financial details are not finalised, and we don’t have a budget for the Cybathlon. Systems can cost anywhere from €20,000 to €100,000. But you can assume, including the work and going to the event, we’re talking about investing roughly €600,000 to €1,000,000 in Cybathlon.
Showing that a person can walk from A to B using brain control alone is definitely attractive for people who understand that science fiction is becoming real. However, I think there are too many variables in our devices when being used for sport – for example, on a cap or integrated inside the skull – so until we have a standardised method for that, which will probably take 10 to 15 years, I don’t see BCI races being a part of the Paralympics.
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