Cybathlon: Robotic Races

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.

The Six Million Dollar Man, cyborgs, RoboCop – over the years, TV and cinema has ignited our imagination with the adventures of man-meets-machine characters. With new event Cybathlon, however, they will now line up at the starting blocks of a Paralympic-style sporting event.

Cybathlon is a one-day competition held on October 8 next year in Zurich at the 7,600-seater Kolping Arena. The concept was conceived by Professor Robert Riener of the ETHZ (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich), which is part of the Swiss National Science Foundation that funds research programme NCCR (National Centre of Competence in Research) Robotics.

NCCR Robotics pulls together top researchers from all over Switzerland with the objective of developing new, human-oriented robotic technology. It opened in December 2010.

Though there are still 16 months until the inaugural event, Cybathlon is gaining international interest from the world’s leading universities and technology companies who are attracted by the prospect of creating robotic devices that will be used by disabled athletes – both professional and amateur – to race in six disciplines.

The disciplines consist of powered robotic arm, leg, exoskeleton, bike and wheelchair races, as well as a BCI (brain-computer interface) race that enables the participant to control an avatar in a racing game played on computers controlled only by the brain (see Cybathlon Disciplines below).

“I started NCCR Robotics almost five years ago, and after about 12 years there should be enough critical mass and projects for the centre to standalone with no external funding,” NCCR Robotics director Dario Floreano told SportBusiness International. “We operate in three phases of four years, and in the first phase we received approximately CHF20 million ($21.6 million) of funding.

“As we are promoting our research and developing technology, we wondered how we could have an impact on society, ensuring that these machines are accepted by people and not perceived as cold technologies that are developed in some lab.

“One idea was to create a visible public event, and that’s when Robert Riener – who is also the NCCR co-director – came up with Cybathlon. We believe the event is unique because in the Paralympics athletes cannot use assisted devices, so we have created a great niche.”

Rehabilitation Engineering

Riener says that the idea for Cybathlon was borne out of a need to create prosthetics that are better than the “bulky and energy consuming” ones currently available for disabled people, adding that only a quarter of upper-arm amputees use prosthetics because they aren’t as practical as they should be.

However, due to the prototype nature of the devices that will be used at the event, an independent committee rigorously tests the prosthethics before they can be used by athletes, or as Riener calls them, ‘pilots’.

“As organisers, we have to ensure that all technologies are functioning and safe. There are many different steps and rules that have to be fulfilled by participants, and teams have to submit descriptions, photographs, movies, safety certifications and records of the pilot’s health,” Riener says.

“So far we have around 60 applications, with about six or seven teams from the UK, eight from Switzerland, and others from Belgium, the Americas, South Africa, Japan, South Korea and Australia. We actually needed 60 applicants for the event to go ahead, so we already have that. The maximum number of teams is set at a hundred.”

Due to the practical nature of the six disciplines, the pilots range from everyday people to Paralympians. The powered wheelchair race, for example, is an obstacle course that includes daily life objects like a ramp and stairs. However, on the other side of the coin, the functional electrical stimulation bike race, which is for pilots with spinal cord injuries, takes place on a 1,000-metre track, meaning an element of athleticism is needed. It is for this reason that Floreano believes Cybathlon will be “an educational showcase with a competitive element”.

Cybathlon is also a commercial opportunity for the manufacturers, as their technology will be on show to a significantly wide audience.

“Promoting our research and technology is not the main driver behind creating Cybathlon, but of course it’s one of the potential benefits that we will have as a result of people around the world seeing the event,” adds Floreano.

Robotic Future

Cybathlon organisers say the total budget for hosting the event will be CHF1.7 million ($1.86 million), and that discussions are already taking place with potential host countries about holding the next two editions after 2016. And though Riener says he initially envisaged Cybathlon taking place every four years, Seoul in South Korea and Tokyo, Japan, have applied to host the event in 2018 and 2020 respectively. 

“Seoul would like to host the event as it has a strong interest in robotics, as well as rehabilitation engineering,” Riener says. “Tokyo has also applied to host Cybathlon, and might even extend the sports programme. The 2020 event will hopefully be held the same time as the Olympics [to be hosted in the Japanese capital], otherwise it will take place immediately before the Games.”

The Paralympics would need to change its rules for any Cybathlon technologies to be integrated

NCCR Robotics is the presenting partner of the 2016 Cybathlon, and companies sponsoring the event are primarily Swiss (see Sponsoring Cybathlon), however, Floreano says NCCR will take a step back were Cybathlon to be hosted internationally.

“The Cybathlon has become much larger than the NCCR and one day will become a globally recognised event. That is already happening given participation is coming from all over the world,” he says.

“I know Robert already has plans for the next edition of Cybathlon, with many people interested in the rights for the event, but the NCCR is only a starting point and Cybathlon should have its own life without NCCR Robotics.”

Being potentially hosted alongside the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo opens up the possibility of Cybathlon being integrated into the Paralympics, but at the moment the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) says that is not possible given its strict ban on equipment assisting Paralympic athletes (see Cyba-lympics?).

“The Paralympics would need to change its rules for any Cybathlon technologies to be integrated into the event, but I do hope that there will be a new division of the Games where Cybathlon can take place,” adds Floreano.

Cybathlon Disciplines

Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) Race
Pilots are equipped with BCIs that enable them to control an avatar with their mind and race in an obstacle course played on computers. Four pilots can simultaneously compete in the same race. Each pilot sits in front of a separate screen to play the game, and each pilot can see the avatars of his orher three competitors.

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) Bike Race
Two to four pilots with complete spinal cord injuries (SCIs) are equipped with FES devices that enable them to pedal an adapted bike around a 1,000-metre race track.

Powered Arm Prosthetics Race
Pilots with forearm or upper arm amputations are equipped with robotic prosthetic devices to solve as many tasks as possible including daily life activities within a given time limit.

Powered Leg Prosthetics Race
Pilots with leg amputations are equipped with robotic prosthetics to complete an obstacle course.

Powered Exoskeleton Race
Pilots with SCIs are equipped with exoskeletons to complete an obstacle course similar to that of the powered leg prosthetics race.

Powered Wheelchair Race
Pilots with different disability levels – for example, tetraplegics, paraplegics and amputees – are equipped with powered wheelchairs to complete an obstacle course similar to that of the powered leg prosthetics race.


To continue reading SportBusiness International's Cybathlon feature, please click on the links below:

Cybathlon: Participants
Sponsoring Cybathlon

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