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.


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