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Bionic Olympics: The Cybathlon competition aims to improve assistive technologies

How many wheelchairs have you seen that can climb stairs? Likely not many. The major advances –let’s call them big strides– in assistive technology (like Disney’s prosthetic arms and this exoskeleton) get a lot of press, but the truth is that many of these devices have yet to see widespread use among the estimated 15% of the world’s population that’s physically impaired. A new event styled after the Olympics called the Cybathlon aims to change that, bringing together some of the world’s best scientists and disabled pilots.

It’s essentially a bionic version of the Olympics. That’s a pretty awesome concept, but don’t expect gymnastics or shot-put events. Robert Riener, Head of the Health Sciences and Technology Department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich (ETH), founded the Cybathlon as a way of putting novel devices to the test in real-life situations. To that end, the focus is on regular activities instead of sports. Pilots will perform a series of common daily tasks using various cutting-edge assistive technologies.

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Organized by ETH, the races will challenge scientists to come up with better assistive tech, with awards for both the pilot and the device maker for each event. Both commercially available devices and lab prototypes will compete, while pre-determined rules for the race tracks and obstacle courses will allow for comparison between within each category of devices.

For example, the brain computer interface (BCI) race is designed to test the precision and reliability of BCIs in a virtual game. Pilots will use BCIs to control characters in a game developed specially for a given purpose.

The Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race, on the other hand, is designed to test the accuracy of intelligent control devices used to move paralyzed muscles. This event will focus on spinal cord injuries, using non-motorized bikes in two-pilot races where the pilots control the muscle stimulation themselves.

There’s also the Powered Arm and Leg Prosthesis Races, which will focus on a series of six common tasks (like opening a can or climbing stairs) that take the weight, flexibility, and fine motor control of each device into account.

Finally, the Powered Exoskeleton and Powered Wheelchair Races center on ease of use and maneuverability. Only pilots with spinal cord injuries will participate in the exoskeleton event, while the wheelchair event is open to any pilot with severe injuries that prevent walking.

In addition to the races, the audience can check out an interactive exhibition of the devices and the Cybalthon Scientific Symposium two days prior to the event, also hosted by ETH. The keynote speakers include Doctors Hugh Herr from MIT, and Michael Goldfarb from Vanderbilt.  The deadline for symposium participant abstracts is April 30. The inaugural Cybathlon will be held in the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Zurich, Switzerland, on October 8, 2016.