A new Swiss competition challenges labs to develop robotics hardware and brain-computer interfaces that will help parathletes compete at levels never seen before.

photo: Cybathalon

The Olympics are meant to test human ability. But technology is now augmenting what humans can do, allowing them to cut through water faster and run on prosthetic legs at speeds faster than athletes who have legs. The Olympic committee has often reacted by banning equipment and clothing that give athletes too much of an advantage.

A new Swiss competition called the Cybathlon, scheduled for 2016, sets aside those limits and asks what athletes with physical disabilities are capable of when they compete with the help of advanced robotics. Their abilities will be tested in six different competitions that range from completing a course in an exoskeleton to racing virtual cars via a computer-brain interface. Athletes will compete individually or in teams and pair with a lab that will create their robotics gear.

The race events will take place on a course filled with slopes and obstacles, so competitors won’t exactly beat any world records. Athletes will make their way over a teeter totter, narrow beam and stairs before sprinting across the finish line. It will certainly be more exciting than the DARPA Robotics Challenge trials because, when it comes to software, the human brain still rules.

The course participants in the prosthetic leg competition will run. Photo courtesy of the Cybathalon.

The course participants in the prosthetic leg competition will run. Photo courtesy of the Cybathalon.

The Cybathalon will kick off on October 8, 2016 in Zurich and is put on by ETH Zurich and the Swiss National Competence Center of Research in Robotics. Here’s the full list of events that will take place:

  • Brain-computer interface race
  • Functional electrical stimulation bike race
  • Leg prosthetics race
  • Powered exoskeleton race
  • Powered wheelchair race
  • Arm prosthetics race

The big question is how fast we’ll see the technology here evolve. Soon, Cybathalon participants could be competing stronger and faster than any athlete in the Olympics.

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