As my podcast series goes on, I will be talking about the various assistive technologies that can improve your life even if you have nothing wrong with you.
The Cybathlon which is a new age competition combining technology, sport and disability. If you haven’t heard of already, the first event was held in Zurich, Switzerland for the 2016 games. Cyb-Ath-Lon, not Cybathon, or cybothlon. Disabled athletes [cybathletes] use this technology compete.
When you’re elderly, do you want a zimmerframe? A mobility scooter? Maybe you already have one.
What if I said you could go to the shops in an Exoskeleton at a steady jogging pace? This is the type of thing the Cybathlon could produce.
What’s the Point of the Cybathlon?
The purpose of the Cybathlon is to accelerate technology through competition. And what better way to get teams from around the world to race to the finish! It helps promote scientific research, gets universities and colleges involved worldwide. Student time can be applied to assist Cybathletes with development and research papers can be written.
I feel it pushes brands to make investment, making a one-off performance model piece of equipment. This in turn can be factored in to current disability aids, and how they could be better. There are also benefits for those recovering from an injury or accident. Rehab becomes more eff–icient!
There are 6 different Races for various different types of disability. Each team has a Pilot, Backup Pilot, Hardware development and Software Development group. Depending on the complexity, teams can involve many people from different backgrounds. I’ll talk through each category briefly before I go more in-depth about my role in this.
Brain computer interfaces [BCI] is the sport for super high level spinal cord damage resulting in almost full body paralysis. The role the Cybathletes play is to control a character in a virtual running race. The catch is, the controller is their own brain. This is done using EMG sensors which are threaded into a Skull cap. It requires total focus or the sensors will not receive instructions to give the commands.
*It’s a bit like playing space invaders with just the power of your mind.
Arm Prothesis Race is for those who have lost limbs, specifically the arm. Teams collaborate to design the best functioning robotic arm. There is then an obstacle course where there’s a series of tasks including hanging clothes, screwing lightbulbs and buttering toast with the prosthesis. The hardest task is the old hoop and wire which will buzz if touched. Its a frantic race to the finish and can be very frustrating under pressure; but very entertaining to watch
Leg Prosthesis Race is similar to the arm prosthesis but the course is slightly different and includes a bit of limbo, climbing stairs, repeatedly sofa sitting. Its not exactly Ninja Warrior, but it tests the Teams custom design. I should say, not all the limbs are robotic, a few more static designs are chucked in there too. This helps to show whether capabilities of Robotic designs have surpassed the classic John Silver Peg Leg. Arhaa
Powered Exoskeletons are controlled by Cybathletes with paralysis from the waist down. They too have to follow the same course as the Arm and Leg protesis. Some designs have incorporated different means of activating the legs using sensors. It gets a bit more complicated when you can’t move as the motors have to perform the robot leg action. Its quite a specacle though!
Powered Wheelchair Race includes an obstacle course that Cybathletes must complete as fast as they can. Teams get technical trying to workout how stairs can be climbed as well as extremely bumpy terrain. Its actually probably the most dangerous because some of these machines weigh a lot! As a result, they can become unstable, especially when climbing stairs.
FES Bike Race is where competitors with completely paralysed legs look to complete the chosen track length. The aim is to finish the fastest and depends on the Computer software, the trike itself and the riders leg muscles.
Using adhesive electrodes which fire leg muscles via a sequence from a computer. This impulse triggers the nerves to fire in the correct pattern to cycle.
Thoughts on FES Implants..
For Cybathlon 2016, Mark Muhn had pioneering surgery which took ten hours. He had surgeons implant electrodes under his leg muscles. This meant he could stimulate his legs with a computer sequencer. The benefit from standard adhesive electrodes is that the nerve can be stimulated directly, producing raw muscle power. This gave him the speed he needed to beat me in the 1 v 1 FES Bike Race final.
Future evolution of the technology will likely go down the route of an embedded relay. This could target individual muscle groups in the quad for example. If they manage to do this, then it would become much more efficient.
However, there can be major complications with the surgery, later down the line, wires could come lose. There is also an unknown factor of how healthy it is for the nerve to be zapped like that. It could get fried and be detrimental to muscle response from the nerves in the legs. Therefore, it wouldn’t be my suggestion because I believe that adhesive electrodes are a far safer option with similar results and capabilities. Nonetheless, if you are interested, I’m sure Cleveland FES center would take your money and implant some electrodes.
I would say all areas of the Cybathlon has potential to boost Spinal Tech research. Through the podcast series, I will go more in-depth about the applications. Not only for disability/recovery purposes but for general fitness and bodybuilding uses as well.
I’ll also add some thoughts on Transhumanism and my predictions for Cybathlon 2020, Future Technology and Health hacks.