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Meet the cybathletes


Advances in robotics and prosthetic engineering means those with
disabilities are being given a new sporting lease on life.

Florian Hauser is racing up a ramp like there’s no tomorrow. The four small wheels on his Mars rover-like wheelchair don’t look up to the task, but they devour one, two, three steps like Pac-Man on Power Pellets. He crosses the finish line, his wheelchair’s complex array of exposed wires, cables, hydraulic arms and cylinders working in glorious, engineered harmony.

It’s a balmy, early-October afternoon in Düsseldorf and we’re standing in Hall 4 of Messe Düsseldorf, home to the annual REHACARE rehabilitation trade fair and the Cybathlon Experience: a showcase of assistive technologies for those with disabilities.

Florian was injured in a high-speed motorcycle accident that broke his neck in two places and left him tetraplegic – and the Cybathlon is designed around people like him. The event launched in October 2016, when 66 ‘pilots’ representing 56 teams from 25 countries descended on the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Switzerland. They competed in six different disciplines, each one using advanced robotic technologies to navigate obstacle courses based on real-world challenges.

‘As a developer, I was annoyed with all this bad technology for people with disabilities,’ says Professor Robert Riener, Cybathlon’s founder and Professor of Sensory Motor Systems at ETH Zurich.

Professor Riener was inspired to combat these problems himself after witnessing an event that changed his life. In Chicago’s Willis Tower in 2012, 31-year-old software engineer Zac Vawter climbed 103 flights of stairs using a powered knee prosthesis – controlled by his mind. He was the first person in history to do so. And seeing him attract so much positive media attention, Professor Riener decided to create his own event: a competition that would spark international public interest and spotlight the issues close to his heart. And so the Cybathlon was born.

‘Not turning the pilots into a freak show was a challenge,’ he explains. ‘So we were very careful to make it serious and to target the real problems.’ They filled all 8,000 seats in the Swiss Arena for the first Cybathlon in 2016, captivating the audience.

‘As an event, it’s very much focused on that matching up of end users with novel technology, and then focusing it on problems that are based on the real world,’ says Dr Ian Radcliffe, Imperial College’s Cybathlon team co-ordinator. ‘It’s not based purely on technical performance, but around the ability to achieve everyday tasks – which is really exciting and new.’

For Professor Riener and his team, the even bigger, better 2020 Cybathlon is fast approaching. With double the teams and more advanced technology enabling faster, more dynamic races, the event will expand to two days. And a full-blown Cybathlon Experience the size of REHACARE is scheduled for autumn of that year, organised by the company behind the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The fair is starting to wind down for the day and a man in a sleek, black, minimally designed wheelchair zips nimbly around us. ‘People need to get together, to accept somebody with a disability as a normal person,’ says Professor Riener as he watches the man retreat neatly through the thinning crowd. ‘For the competition, we have steps and ramps and doors – physical barriers. But we have even more barriers in the heads of people without disabilities. We have to get rid of these barriers, and that’s a long process.’

Words by Ian Hsieh. Photographs by Christoffer Rudquist.