When his injuries from a crash left him with severe disabilities, astronaut Steve Austin became a bionic human in the famous 1970’s television series “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The show’s scientists and engineers said, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him stronger, faster, better.”
While existing technology doesn’t necessarily make those who need it stronger, faster, or better than the average person, the science of prosthetics and bionics has advanced to astounding levels in recent years, restoring mobility to those with disabilities, enabling amputees to run, even interfacing the brain directly with computers. We are one step away from restoring tactile sensation through prosthetic limbs.
The incredible progress in bionics will be highlighted in Zurich in October 2016 at the Cybathlon, the first-ever Olympic-style games for competitors who use bionic technology, which includes exoskeletons, brain interfaces, and prosthetic limbs, in their daily lives. The event will be hosted by the Swiss National Competence Center of Research (NCCR). Some of the technology that will be included is banned in the Paralympics, and events will include a virtual race where paralyzed competitors control a computerized avatar using an interface that links their brains to computers.
Competitors will be referred to as pilots and the technology they use need not be available on the commercial market; it can be prototype technology developed specifically for the pilot in question.
“The competitions are comprised by different disciplines that apply the most modern powered knee prostheses, wearable arm prostheses, powered exoskeletons, powered wheelchairs, electrically stimulated muscles and novel brain-computer interfaces,” the NCCR said.
Professor Robert Riener of the University of Switzerland is the event organizer. “The idea is that we want to push development of assistive technologies towards devices that patients can really use in everyday life,” he said. “Some of the current technologies look very fancy but are a long way from being practical and user-friendly.”
There will be six disciplines represented at the inaugural Cybathlon games:
- Powered arm and prostheses race for those equipped with arm prostheses
- Brain computer interface race where a brain-controlled computer avatar will race an obstacle-filled track in a video game
- Functional electrical stimulation bike race for those with spinal cord injuries who use electrical stimulation devices allowing them to pedal a cycle. There will be two categories in this discipline: a sprint and a long-distance race.
- Powered leg prostheses race for leg amputees using machine-operated prostheses. The course will include obstacles such as a staircase, seesaw, and cobblestone paths.
- Powered exoskeleton race for pilots who use powered exoskeletons for mobility because of injury to their spinal cord
- Powered wheelchair race which includes a slalom element, as well as slopes and rough terrain
The organizers of the event hope to use it to increase awareness of and interest in performance-enhancing technology, and to highlight the amazing skills of bionic athletes. The hope is that the event will be successful enough to have more of these games in the future, and even continue to expand and grow the games. Pretty exciting stuff! Watch the videos to see how different these Games will be for athletes and audiences! Which event are you ready to start training for?