Top Athletes Compete in the First Ever Cyborg Olympics

Julian Smith Writer

Backed by tech teams from around the world, “pilots” with physical disabilities will race head to head in Zurich.

“Mechanical doping” can get athletes disqualified, fined and even banned from world-class competitions like the Paralympics or the Olympics, but at the first ever “cyborg Olympics,” participants are encouraged to use technology as much as possible.

According to Robert Riener, a robotics professor at ETH Zurich’s Sensory-Motor Systems Lab and the founder of the Cybathlon, which debuts in Zurich this October, the whole purpose of the games is to show how well humans and machines can work together.

The idea came from Riener’s work in robotic rehabilitation systems — specifically his frustration with the limitations of modern prosthetics when it comes to performing everyday tasks.

“Assistive devices are not mature enough,” he said. “It’s hard for people to do things like climb stairs, go uphill. Patients are disappointed.”

Some stop using prostheses altogether. Reiner decided it was time to highlight these issues, instead of pretending they will go away. He said some technologies – including prosthetics – downright don’t work, or are so difficult to maneuver that people just stop using them.

Riener’s idea to use competition to spur innovation and discussion on the topic has brought overwhelming response, he said. Nearly 80 teams from over two dozen countries have registered.

Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella
Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Each team consists of a technology group and a competitor, who are called “pilots” instead of “athletes.” Assistive devices can be unique prototypes or products already available on the market. The entire team shares in any awards.

Each of the Cybathlon’s six disciplines pits pilots in head-to-head races. To ensure the technology is useful to the widest possible audience, courses are designed around daily life tasks.

In the powered-leg prostheses race, pilots with above-knee amputations navigate obstacles like stairs, slopes and beams. Challenges in the powered arm prostheses race include movements like slicing bread and opening jars. The Swedish team in the arm competition will use osseointegration, with metal parts anchored directly into the pilot’s arm bone.

“I’ve seen him at rehearsal,” Riener said. “He performs very well.”

Credit: Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella
Credit: Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Pilots with leg amputations or spinal cord injuries will race on tracks with ramps and steps during the powered wheelchair race. The designs will have to carefully balance weight and performance, Riener says: A wider wheelbase means more stability for climbing stairs, but it’s also heavier and slower.

Only pilots with leg paralysis from a spinal injury can enter the powered exoskeleton race. The course starts with the pilot seated on a sofa and proceeds through five other tasks, including walking up a ramp and down stairs.

Fifteen teams have signed up already, including one from the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC) in Pensacola.

Pilot Mark Daniel lost the use of his legs in a car accident in 2007. Now he’s training hard in the IHMC lab’s X1 powered exoskeleton, developed with help from NASA. Daniel controls the X1’s motorized leg modules through buttons, switches and a screen on one forearm crutch.

“It gets basic input from me on what’s coming up next, but to a certain extent it is thinking on its own,” he said. The hardest obstacle to practice for has been the “lily pad” stepping stones, with their irregular stride patterns. His goal, however, is bigger than grabbing the gold.

“I want to do well, but I’m also really looking forward to the swap meet style of it. We’re all going there for same purpose at the end: to get rid of the wheelchair.” The design of which, Daniel points out, has not changed much since ancient Egypt.

Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella
Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

In some races, however, it’s the pilots who are powered, not the machines. For example, Ronald Triolo of the Advanced Platform Technology Center at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center is leading a team to compete in the functional electrical stimulation (FES) bike race. FES uses electrical pulses to activate otherwise paralyzed muscles, typically through electrodes attached to the skin. During the race, pilots will use FES to ride non-motorized recumbent bikes around a flat circular track.

Triolo has pioneered a new form of FES that uses surgically implanted electrode “cuffs” made of flexible rubber which wrap around individual muscle nerves. They’re wired to a pulse generator placed inside the abdomen, which receives wireless signals from an external wearable computer.

This allows much more precise control of muscle activity, Triolo said, which in a competition like this, is a delicate balance between force and stamina. Different pre-programmed muscle stimulation patterns already let patients in Triolo’s lab do things like stand up, balance and take small steps. Biking, then, should be a breeze.

“Biking is actually easier than walking,” Triolo said. “You don’t have to worry about balancing, you can just focus on propulsion.”

Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella
Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

Each rider gets a personalized stimulation pattern that fires individual muscles at just the right time in the pedal stroke. They will have to steer, shift and monitor their energy levels to keep from exhausting their legs too quickly.

“The goal is to have seamless integration so they become intimately attached and interactive with the technology,” Triolo said, “and to give people with paralysis an effective means of exercise.”

Not to mention the fun factor: Triolo said he can’t keep people away from the bikes. And while he admits he was skeptical of the idea of the Cybathlon at first, Triolo said the preparation has energized and inspired his research group.

The sixth Cybathlon event involves the least movement, but it may be the most challenging of all. During the brain-computer interface (BCI) race, pilots who have near or complete paralysis at neck level, due to spinal cord injury, stroke or neurodegenerative diseases, will compete using a specially developed computer game.

Each one wears a cap covered with electrodes and wires, which detect their brain signals using electroencephalography (EEG) or near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and transmit them to a computer. Using just their thoughts, pilots control digital avatars who run and jump through a virtual obstacle course. Assistive devices using this kind of “neural prosthesis” technology are already in use.

If the games are a success, Riener hopes to organize the next round to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. He’s already considering new disciplines, including creative competitions — drawing, painting, dancing, playing music — for people with sensory deficits. Above all, he hopes the Cybathlon helps breaks down barriers.

“That would be the best possible outcome,” he said, “to get rid of prejudice, to increase acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities.”

Feature image credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella.

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