So I’ll be the first to admit that when I think about bionic appendages, robotic prosthetics and exoskeletons, my mind wonders into the realm of sci-fi movies and comic books.
However, more impressive than any imaginary super heroes are the real-world applications that such developments are having for the physically disabled.
And in no better have these advancements been put on display than the recently concluded Cybathlon, which was essentially the world’s first-ever bionic Olympics. Held in in Zurich, the competitions were a combination of skills and science as teams showcased technology that has truly had life-altering effects.
The six events offered a range of applications, from the Brain-Computer Interface Race where competitors had to navigate computer avatars with their mind, to the more mechanical Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race, Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, Powered Exoskeleton Race and Powered Wheelchair Race.
Races were not just about speed, but expanding technological capabilities.
For example, the Functional Stimulation Bike Race called upon pilots with complete paraplegia to pedal the bikes by artificially stimulating the motor nerves that would initiate muscle contraction. So the drivers would need to get the right parts of their body firing in order to actuate the mechanical processes involved with pedaling a bike.
For the powered prosthetic races, competitors needed to complete daily tasks like making breakfast, folding laundry or navigating stairs or uneven terrain.
In total, 66 teams comprised of nearly 400 competitors from around the world took part.
For each event the teams showcased their customized and often specially developed bionic technologies. So unlike most competitions where equipment is standardized, the Cybathlon teams were encouraged to develop unique approaches in furthering bionics and prosthetic development.
The event is the brainchild of ETH Zurich and NCCR Robotics professor Robert Riener and was forged with three aims in mind; to facilitate conversation between academia and industry, to facilitate discussion between technology developers and those with disabilities, and to promote the use of robotic assistive aids.
Worth noting, amongst the winning teams this year was Team Cleveland from the U.S. in the Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race.