Cybathlon 2016: Breaking Barriers With Assistive Technology

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A LEG race competitor demonstrates his ability to sit and stand repeatedly. Photograph courtesy of ETH Zurich/Alessandro Della Bella.

After more than two years of hype, the Cybathlon—a new competition designed to showcase the capabilities of robotic assistive devices—was held October 8 in Zurich, Switzerland. More than 4,500 spectators came to support the 400 contestants from 25 countries, comprising almost 70 teams, as they lined up to participate in one of six disciplines: a leg prosthetics race (LEG), an arm prosthetics race (ARM), a brain computer interface race (BCI), a functional electrical stimulation bike race (FES), an exoskeleton race (EXO), or a wheelchair race (WHEEL). Teams consisted of one or more athletes, called pilots, and an industry or academic technology provider. The assistive devices included commercially available products or prototypes developed by research labs, with the requirement that the device must be controlled by the wearer and carry its own power supply.

The event was conceived by ETH Zurich and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research robotics professor Robert Riener, PhD, with the aims of facilitating conversations between academia and industry, facilitating discussions between technology developers and people with disabilities, and promoting the use of robotic assistive aids to the general public. A scientific symposium preceded the Cybathlon on October 6.

Cowley’s HiFi interface integrates with a functional hand

Bob Radocy completes a task designed to showcase his prowess using a body-powered prosthetic arm. He competed for Team DIPO Power, a collaboration between his company, TRS Prosthetics, Boulder, Colorado, and students from Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. Photograph courtesy of ETH Zurcih/Nicola Pitaro.

The following is a list of the six disciplines, the winners, and a description of some of the tasks—many derived from everyday activities—that had to be completed:

  • ARM: Winner, Robert (Bob) Radocy, Team DIPO Power
    Contestants completed tasks such as twisting a lightbulb in a lamp socket; using clothespins to hang t-shirts; and taking dishes and silverware out of drawers, placing them on a tray, and then ascending a ramp, opening and closing a door, and then descending stairs without spilling the tray. Radocy (pictured above) used a body-powered prosthetic arm; he beat competitors who were using robotic arms.
  • LEG: Winner, Helgi Sveinsson, Team ÖssurRheoKnee
    Contestants participated in an obstacle course with such tasks as sitting down and standing up from a chair multiple times; sidestepping over foot-high boards; and ascending and descending stairs while carrying a plate of apples in one hand and a plate with a cup on it in the other, without spilling the objects.
  • WHEEL: Winner, Florian Hauser, Team HSR Enhanced
    This race showcased high-tech wheelchairs and their maneuverability and capabilities, such as traversing pipes affixed to the floor in diagonal and perpendicular patterns and ascending and descending stairs unaided.
  • FES: Winner, Mark Muhn, Team Cleveland
    Contestants pedaled bicycles by using FES to artificially stimulate their motor nerves to initiate muscle contraction.
  • BCI: Winner, Numa Poujouly, Team Brain Tweakers
    Contestants controlled avatars in a specially developed computer game.
  • EXO: Winner, Andre Van Rueschen, Team ReWalk
    Users of robotic exoskeletons completed a course that included demonstrating their ability to stand up from a seated position, ascend and descend stairs, and use alternating legs to step on a course of round discs placed on the floor.

Organizers plan to host a second Cybathlon in four years.

For more information, including video replays of the event, visit

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