What's a Cybathlon?

A version of this robotic prosthesis will be competing in the 2016 Cybathlon.
A version of this robotic prosthesis will be competing in the 2016 Cybathlon.
Image courtesy ETH Zurich, SMS Lab

Whether we're talking about A-Rod or Lance Armstrong, the choices of professional athletes have left a lot of us sports fans griping about "performance enhancements." We like our sports pure and our competitions an untarnished testament to the strength of the human body.

Unless, of course, those bodies are wearing fully functioning robotic exoskeletons while they compete. That we can get behind.

In October 2016, a competition called the Cybathlon will take place in Zurich, Switzerland, that's intended to showcase not only the talents of racing pilots (the term coined for parathletes who use assistive devices) but also the advanced robotics and engineering designed to make them stronger, faster and more agile. In fact, if a pilot wins a competition, both the pilot and the company or lab behind the assistive technology will have a medal hanging around their necks.

The sporting event arose courtesy of the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics to develop more assistive technologies for the people who need them and to explore what can happen when you mix talented competitors with cutting-edge tech. Superhumans, we hope.

The Cybathlon will have six different disciplines for its pilots, some of them probably familiar to us, but that doesn't mean the technology will be. For instance, the leg prosthetics race won't just feature the blades we're familiar with on Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, although commercially available tech and research prototypes are fair game. Instead, they'll showcase runners wearing exoprosthetic devices, or ones worn externally, that can have powered joints. (Just no combustion engines, the rules are sure to specify.) The race involves a quick sprint and an obstacle course of stairs, slopes, gravel -- even a teeter-totter -- to test the functioning superiority of the device and the pilot's skill.

But let's look a little closer at the competition and technology in the five other Cybathlon events to get an idea of what the future of robotics and engineering can bring to athletes – and society at large.

The Bionic Olympics

Drawing of the Cybathlon's powered arm prosthesis event in action
Drawing of the Cybathlon's powered arm prosthesis event in action

The Cybathlon's proposed disciplines each speak to a different technological challenge and will use a pilot with impairments specific to the discipline. Although the competition has drafted guidelines for the technology that can be used, the actual devices and equipment are still being developed (and are sure to be awesome).

The event for powered arm prostheses will test dexterity by using a conductive wire loop to carefully follow another wire; if the wires touch, a signal will go off indicating the participant has to start over (looking at the accompanying picture gives you a good idea of how this will go). Pilots will also handle objects that require different grips; a pilot must use one object to reach the next. The pilots for this competition must have a forearm amputation, and will use an actuated exoprosthetic device that's fully autonomous. (An actuator is just the part that makes the device capable of movement. A motor is a typical example.)

Then there's the functional electronic stimulation bike race, where pilots who have spinal cord injuries will ride bikes powered by electronic stimulation to their legs. These bikes use small electrical pulses to stimulate muscle movement, allowing paraplegic or quadriplegic pilots to pedal. The athletes will compete in both a sprint and an endurance race using the cycles.

Next up is the powered exoskeleton race, which also will feature an obstacle course. The pilot must have a spinal cord injury and be outfitted with a full exoskeleton device that will allow pilots with leg paralysis to physically walk through the course. And remember the technology must be fully operated by the pilot: no remote-controlled action from another person.

The powered wheelchair race involves an obstacle course, too. Although it's for people who are regular wheelchair users, don't expect "regular" wheelchairs. They're fully powered and will have to navigate a course of steps, elevations and various road surfaces, among other things. The pilots will have total control over the chair.

Sketch of the Cybathlon's proposed brain-computer interface race

The final discipline might really blow your mind. The brain-computer interface race is straight out of science fiction. The pilots must have complete loss of motor function below the neck, and thus have severe spinal cord injuries. So how the heck are they going to compete against each other in a computer game that simulates either a horse or car race?

The pilots will be racing with their minds. Seriously. Brain-computer interfaces allow a person's "thoughts" -- translated from an electroencephalograph (EEG) that measures electrical activity in your brain -- to coordinate with a specific function of a computer or machine. So software can "learn" the EEG pattern you make when thinking about moving your hand to the left -- and move the hand on the screen, in turn.

Intrigued? You can buy your tickets in 2016.

Author's Note: What's a Cybathlon?

To learn more about the Cybathlon, I'd encourage you to visit the Web site. It's hard to imagine what some of the technology looks like when it hasn't been fully released yet, and the site has interesting conceptual renderings of the prospective competitive technology.

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