Augmented ‘Olympics’: Championship for Robot-Assisted Parathletes Coming in 2016

A championship sports event for parathletes using high-tech prostheses, exoskeletons and other robotic and assistive devices will be held in two years time.

The championship, named Cybathlon, will be the first Olympic-esque event for augmented humans, where unlike in the Olympics and Paralympics, the use of performance-enhancing devices will be actively encouraged.

The competitors, known as racing pilots or parathletes, will wear the most modern robotics and technologies to counteract their disabilities and enable them to perform in a way that, in some cases, is beyond the abilities of a typical human.

Because of the focus on robotic devices, there will be winning medals not only for the parathletes but also for the manufacturers of the devices.

cybathlon-leg

Cybathlon, which will be held in Zurich, Switzerland, on 8 October 2016, addresses a growing question for athletic events such as the Olympics and Paralympics where athletes wear prosthetics.

As prosthetic technology has improved it has become evident that prosthetics could soon give their wearers an advantage over able-bodied athletes, leading to some comparisons between advanced prosthetics and performance-enhancing drugs.

Because of this, the Olympic rules place very tight restrictions on prosthetics, which nearly resulted in Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius from being banned from the main games for having an unfair advantage.

However, there has been a growing call for an athletic event that encourages the advancement of prosthetics and augmentations, which Cybathlon is now fulfilling.

cybathlon-exo

The event, which is being organised by NCCR Robotics, should help to promote the development of more advanced robotic assistance systems for people with disabilities, as well as increasing public awareness about these technologies and what is currently possible.

Most importantly, the event will provide a unique opportunity for people with disabilities using such systems to compete, as no other event of this type exists anywhere in the world.

Cybathlon 2016 will offer six disciplines for pilots to compete in, all of which have strict entry rules which are viewable on the championship’s website.

The powered leg prosthetics race will involve an obstacle course featuring slopes, steps, uneven surfaces and straight sprints. Athletes will be able to compete in prosthesis that has its own power source, potentially resulting in devices more advanced that those worn by Paralympians.

There will also be a powered wheelchair race on a similar obstacle course, which again will feature a variety of surfaces and environments. The powered arm prosthetics competition will also allow the use of devices with their own power source, but will involve competing in tasks that measure dexterity.

For athletes with spinal cord injuries, the powered exoskeleton race will be undertaken over an obstacle course. This should be particularly interesting to follow as exoskeletons do not typically feature in athletic events, and the level of advancement in this field is not widely known to the general public.

There will also be a functional electrical stimulation bike race for competitors with spinal cord injuries. This will involve the athletes cycling with the aid of electrical stimulation despite being paralysed, typically from the waist down.

Equally remarkable will be the brain-computer interface race, which is a competition for pilots with complete paralysis below the neck. In this event, the pilots will compete in a computer-based horse or car race, with their own avatar controlled completely by their own thought.

The event will serve as a demonstration of the remarkable technologies that are being developed for people with disabilities, but also will serve as a true athletic event where the pilot’s commitment, training and attitude is essential to success. For this reason it eventually could produce parathlete megastars, as public interest in this event is likely to be significant.

If the event were to occur on a regular basis, it could also serve a demonstration of the growth of this field. Every Olympics we expect records to be broken, but in the Cybathlon this would almost be a certainty.


Images courtesy of Cybathlon.


Video: “Robots won’t replace human jobs”

The next wave of robotics to enter mass use will be service robots working autonomously with or for humans, according to Nick Hawes, senior lecturer in robotics at the University of Birmingham.

Speaking at last week’s AI & Robotics Innovation Forum in London, UK, Hawes outlined the benefits for service industries such as care, where simple tasks such as cleaning and monitoring could be undertaken by robots.

This would free up humans to perform more complex roles and give them more time to attend to the needs of their charges, something that would be very welcome in an industry that is under pressure from tight budgets and an ageing population.

For Hawes, roboticists need to consider in what markets existing robotics technology will have the biggest impact, so that they can develop technologies that can be used in real-world situations.

However, he highlighted the need to ensure the acceptability of robots in working environments: people must not see robots as replacing them, but more as helpers that do the most mundane tasks and free up people’s time with more complex and subjective work.

One the of biggest challenges in making mobile, autonomous robots is enabling them to safely and effectively respond to the wide range of environments and situations found in human spaces.

“I see enabling robust and reliable autonomy in human environments as a key enabler for mobile robots,” Hawes said.

In his talk at the forum, Hawes outlined the three ingredients needed in an autonomous system: perception, decision making and action.

Perception is the area that robotics has achieved the most in, with technologies such as Kinect making the jump to consumer use. However, decision making – how the robot decides on its next move – and action – how the robot affects the world around it – still have some way to go.

bob-security-robot

Hawes is currently working on a project with security megafirm G4S to create night watch robots.

Called STRANDS, the project aims to teach robots the normal patterns of daily life in an office environment to detect variations in behaviour that may indicate a security issue.

At present the trial robot, affectionately known as Bob, is being taught daily patterns by continual patrolling of set spaces at different times of the day.

Although Bob considerable work is being done to teach bob how to respond to environments that a human would have no problem with, he could lead to a robot that can spot security issues or behavioural shifts that a human might have missed.


Additional robot footage courtesy of IPA320 and fccysf.