Zurich is soon to host the world’s first ‘bionic Olympics’, an event aimed at showcasing and improving the novel technological aids that assist people with disabilities in their everyday activities.

The first Cybathlon will take place on 8 October 2016, in the SWISS Arena in Kloten. Fifty teams from across the world will compete in six demanding disciplines, using the latest assistive technologies. This includes tackling flights of stairs in wheelchairs, speed and skill tests using the latest prostheses, a race for cyclists using electrical muscle stimulation, and a brain-computer interface race.

The Cybathlon has been organised by the Swiss university ETH Zurich, with the goal of encouraging the development of assistive technologies that better suit people with disabilities. The event aims to remove barriers and open conversation between people with disabilities, technology developers, academia, industry, and the general public. The organising committee is composed of medical doctors, roboticists, communications specialists and event organisers, and the event will be preceded by a Scientific Symposium on the topic.

The Cybathlon is the brainchild of ETH Zurich and NCCR Robotics professor Robert Riener, who came up with the idea after chatting to an acquaintance with a false arm. “I realised current technology is not well developed and thought a competition would motivate research labs to talk to patients and come up with better solutions.”

The event will essentially create a competition between companies and research labs too, driving a push towards assistive technology that is more effective, more widely available, and at a lower cost for people with disabilities.

Zurich is an important hub in the assistive technologies field for this inaugural event: Riener heads up Sensory-Motor Systems at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology at ETH Zurich, as well as being assistant professor for Rehabilitation Engineering. ETH Zurich is a key player in NCCR Robotics, the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics, a Switzerland-wide initiative consisting of four universities, 20 professors and more than 100 researchers with the common objective of developing new, human-oriented robotic technology. The NCCR has teams competing in the Brain-Computer Interface, Powered Arm Prosthesis and Powered Exoskeleton Races.

If October’s event is a success, there are plans to hold a follow-up at Stoke Mandeville Hospital near Aylesbury in the United Kingdom, which played a key role in the creation of the 2012 London Paralympics.

The University of Essex is one of six UK teams taking part this year, submitting a Brainstormer team which will see competitor David Rose trying to control a computer game using only his brainwaves.

University of Essex team leader Ana Matran-Fernandez noted: “The problem is most of the research is with able-bodied users. It’s very hard to get people with that level of disability to come to the lab and do these very long training sessions. The Cybathlon has provided a reason to do that. Thanks to this competition we have built a brain-computer interface, which can recognise different commands so it could be used to control a wheelchair to move forward, left or right.”


(via BBC and Cybathlon)

Featured image: The Cybathlon competition includes an agility course using motorised arm prostheses (Credit: ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella)