The dust has settled after the 2016 Rio Olympics and Paralympics set the world aflame with excitement. However, if you thought those sporting events were the only exciting games of this year, think again. Just last month, the world saw the beginning of a new kind of Olympics. An event not entirely unforeseen, and one that marks the astonishing level of advancement the human race has made in robotics. A milestone in the field, ‘Cybathlon 2016’ saw bionic technology at its ultimate best. But, if the word ‘Cybathlon’ draws a question mark in your mind, then read on to learn about the wondrous happenings that took place in our world’s debut cyborg games.
Simply put, the Cybathlon is a sporting competition designed for people with severe disabilities, who now use prosthetics in place of damaged or altogether missing parts of their bodies. The games see these ‘parathletes’ compete in tasks that require them to perform everyday activities that involve their bionic parts. Held in Zurich over the second weekend of October this year, these captivating games involved everything from bionic arms and robotic legs, to powered exoskeletons, brain-controlled computer interfaces and supercharged wheelchairs. Although competitive, this ‘bionic Olympics’ was less about the competition and more about what the future of technology has in store for those with disabilities.
The weekend when assistive technology shone, Cybathlon 2016 saw a 4,600-strong crowd cheer 66 teams of technologists, developers and “pilots” – as the competitors were called. But, what was most incredible was the way in which every parathlete stepped up to his/her task. They were also backed and supported throughout, by the technical team from the research lab or company that built their prosthetics. But, covering six disciplines, the tasks themselves were breathtaking. For instance, pilots with varying spinal cord injuries and bilateral leg amputations took on multi-terrain surfaces and stairs in powered wheelchairs, while in another race, functional electrical stimulation (FES) was used to activate the leg muscles of paralysed pilots to ride bikes. In other words, this spectacular Muscle-Stimulated Bike Race saw competitors pedal bicycles by artificially stimulating their nerves to initiate muscle contractions.
However, one of the highlights of the bionic games was the Brain-Computer Interface Race which required competitors to control avatars in a specially developed computer game, using their minds. There was also the Powered Leg Prosthesis Race – the fastest of all the events. Probably one of the most innovative of the event’s races however, was the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race, in which competitors completed everyday tasks such as slicing bread, pinning clothes on a line and lifting objects with their prosthetic arms – each action requiring a different grip. Finally, the daunting Powered Exoskeleton Race and the Powered Wheelchair Race were a brilliant display of how assistive technology is transforming the way paraplegics move completely – paving the way for more inclusion of these individuals in varied fields.
Perhaps the most warming part of Cybathlon 2016 was the crowning of the winners for each event, since the stars of the races hailed from various countries. With winners from countries like the US, Switzerland, Germany, Iceland and Netherlands, the games sure gave loads of people a reason to celebrate.
While these cyborg games were a show of how much the sports world has grown from the regular Olympics to Paralympics and now bionic Olympics, they are also proof of the good that can come from the use of bionics in helping people with disabilities live fuller, more independent lives. With a successor planned for 2020, we can only wait with anticipation to see how much these games grow. Who knows? We may even see our bionic stars acing water sports of various kinds, and gymnastics too. If technology has brought us this far, we can only expect it to help us soar further into the skies of even more awe-inspiring achievements.