Behold the 6 events at the world’s first ‘bionic Olympics’

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

On Saturday October 8, more than 70 competitors from 25 countries will assemble in Zurich, Switzerland to compete in the world’s first bionic Olympics – a gauntlet of grueling events collectively known as the Cybathlon.

The event is like the regular Olympics, only the athletes are all part-robot.

Some competitors are missing a hand or leg, while others are paralyzed from the neck down. To make up for these setbacks, the athletes have motorized, computer-enhanced prosthetics, the strengths of which will be put to the test in six different events, depending on which body part is bionic.

Here’s how it’ll all shake out.


In the Exoskeleton Race, competitors who’ve lost the use of their legs will don the latest assistive suits to step over stones, climb stairs, and walk across a ramp as quickly as possible.

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

Robert Riener is the event organizer of the Cybathlon and a professor of sensory-motor systems at ETH Zurich, which is putting on the event. He says the main goal of the competition is to celebrate how close the relationship between humans and robots is becoming.

“Most assistive technologies are not satisfactory yet, and do not provide good daily life support,” Riener told Tech Insider in December 2015.


In the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, competitors who are missing part or all of a limb will test their dexterity in picking up and transporting various odd-shaped objects.

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

“Through the organization of the Cybathlon we want to remove barriers between people with disabilities, the public, and technology developers,” the event’s website reads.

Though competitors will win gold, silver, and bronze medals just like the real Olympics, the medical doctors, engineers, and professors who are present on Saturday will take careful note of which technologies help most and which hold people back.


The Powered Leg Prosthesis Race will include many of the same obstacles as the Exoskeleton race — athletes will compete in six events on four parallel tracks at the same time.

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

Unlike the Exoskeleton race, however, athletes must take controlled and measured steps the entire way. Their goal isn’t just speediness, but grace. They can’t lumber around the course and get full credit just for completing it.

So-called “active prostheses” make this kind of fine motor movement possible. As opposed to passive prostheses, active ones aren’t just cosmetic – they respond to the user’s muscular input.


Some races will take place virtually, like the Brain-Computer Interface Race. People with quadriplegia or other severe motor dysfunctions will wear caps that read brain activity, allowing them to control an avatar in a race against other avatars.

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are some of the most promising advances in robotics, especially since the technology existed for a while before it started being used in this application.

Most teams will use electroencephalography (EEG) – a technology commonly used to detect the presence of seizures – to detect brain wave patterns. The Cybathlon’s site also points out that other methods, like near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) – a technique that shines a light into the body to pick up information – are also allowed.


For paraplegics, some of the greatest difficulties in day-to-day life come with basic transportation. In the Powered Wheelchair Race, teams will showcase their solutions for overcoming obstacles like uneven pavements and steep slopes.

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

The people participating in the wheelchair races typically suffer from spinal cord damage or a similar kind of nervous-system trauma.

Many athletes still have use of their hands, so they can control the chairs with the help of joysticks or trackpads. Others can’t use any of their limbs, so their chairs are equipped with eye-tracking technology that orients the chair in the direction their heads are facing.


At first, the Muscle-Stimulated Bike Race might look like a Paralympic event, but the bikes are actually powered by electrical impulses in the athletes’ legs.

source
ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella

This technology is known as Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES). Electrodes placed on the athletes’ legs cause the muscles to contract, leading their feet to press the pedals. Since there are no active nerve endings in the paralyzed limbs, the contractions come from a separate power source.

That means even without the brain’s electrical impulse to move their muscles, the athletes still need to condition their legs for active effort. And just like a normal race, the first to complete a full lap wins.