Bionic Olympics

Woman wearing a brainwave-detecting cap

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The Cybathlon will be held in Kloten, Switzerland, on 8 October

It’s being pitched as a bionic Olympics. Next month, contestants from across the world using robotic exoskeletons, electronic arms, powered wheelchairs and other tech will take part in the world’s first Cybathlon.

The event near Zurich is intended to highlight how people with physical disabilities can be helped by novel technological aids in their everyday activities.

Fifty teams from across the world will take part, including six from the UK.

Events include slicing bread, going upstairs and putting out the washing.

“Disability sport is very much in the public eye thanks to the success of the London Paralympics, but people don’t see the struggles people with disabilities or physical weakness face every day,” explained Kevin Evison.

He will be competing with the use of an advanced prosthetic arm as part of a team from London’s Imperial College university.

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Kevin Evison will be competing as part of a team from Imperial College

He said: “Cybathlon brings together the best of prosthetic technology from around the world with innovative ideas enabling us to be more independent and productive, making it a competition against companies and research labs too.”

Futuristic race

David Rose, who was paralysed 29 years ago in a diving accident, will be competing as part of the University of Essex’s rival Brainstormer team.

He will be trying to control a computer game using only his brainwaves.

“I’m incredibly competitive – from an early age I was always into sport and you always try to win,” he told the BBC.

Mr Rose has been training for nearly two years in preparation for the brain interface race.

He will wear a cap covered in electrodes that will detect his brain activity and send the readings to a computer, which will attempt to interpret his thought commands.

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David Rose will have to control a computer character through thought alone

“It’s surprisingly exhausting,” he adds.

“To move my avatar I have to think of specific thoughts without thinking of anything else.

“How many times do you do that during the day without thinking, ‘What will I have for tea tonight?’

“Or, ‘I must do that job,’ or ‘put some more money in the car park meter’. Your brain is constantly working.”

Rewired brains

The Cybathlon has been organised by the Swiss university ETH Zurich.

One of its goals is to encourage engineers to create assistive products that better suit people with disabilities.

“The problem is most of the research is with able-bodied users,” explains University of Essex team leader Ana Matran-Fernandez.

“But our brains rewire. If someone like David has not been able to move their legs for years that part of the brain will be doing something else.

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John Cairns

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The Cybathlon presents a chance to educate the wider public about assistive technologies

“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.”

Teams entering the prosthetic arm race hope it will also lead to lower-cost, tech-enhanced prosthetics.

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Imperial College

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Kevin Evison has nearly 30 years’ experience of using a myo-electric hand

Mr Evison’s electronic hand has a high degree of manoeuvrability but cost the NHS about £7,000.

It is no longer routinely provided to patients.

“The race involves doing as many different tasks as possible in the time limit,” he explains.

“Things like cutting a loaf, holding a tray and fitting a light bulb. I don’t see there being a problem. I’m not here to lose but to win.”

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There will be six different types of competition at the event

Imperial College is itself trying to develop a cheaper alternative.

“We are working on sensor technology, kind of like putting a microphone on the skin to hear the sound of the muscle fibres moving,” says Dr Ian Radcliffe, who is responsible for the university’s Sports Innovation Challenge Project.

“It’s more robust than the myo-electric system Kevin currently uses,” he added, referring to a system that relies on detecting the electrical signals naturally generated by muscles.

“It’s also less susceptible to errors and is easier to become adept with. The aim is to make it widely available and at low cost.”

Team Imperial is also perfecting a wheelchair to climb stairs for one of the other events.

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The powered wheelchair race will pit competitors against six obstacles

The Cybathlon is the idea of Prof Robert Riener from ETH Zurich University.

He said it came to him after chatting to an acquaintance with a false arm.

“He mentioned standing in a cinema queue and having to take out his wallet with his prosthetic arm,” he recalls.

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The powered arm prosthesis challenge will be won by the contestant who solves six tasks in the shortest time

“It was always a challenge to do it quickly and he was embarrassed because his arm was loud.

“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.”

Next year the Cybathlon could come to the UK.

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

Hear more about the Cybathlon on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme

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