Health Technology

Man And Machine: The Cybathlon

Too many of us know too little about the everyday problems that people with disabilities face in our society – that’s something we want to change – Robert Riener, Director Cybathlon

Words cannot express how excited I am for this weekend’s Cybathlon event – held in Zurich on the 8th of October. The Cybathlon is the brainchild of ETH Zurich’s Robert Riener, a good friend of the ISEA and sports engineering community as a whole, even keynoting on this topic a few months ago at the Sports Engineering conference in Delft. The event pairs pilots (who are trained competitors with a disability) with an assistive technology to allow them to compete across a challenging circuit. 73 athletes will come to compete in 59 different teams representing 25 different countries to tackle one, or more of the 6 competition disciplines. The teams are not only the elite research teams but the leading industry who are both pushing the envelope of science and technology to create these extraordinary machines.

Robert Riener: Photo from ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

This event not only excites me as a biomedical engineer – due to the cutting edge technology for enabling adaptive performance is on so, or even just as a researcher – seeing the bridging of the gap between researchers and industry work, but it most importantly excites me as a human. It is estimated that 15% of the world’s population live with a disability and 2.2% of the population is limited to a functionally significant degree. This number is in no way small and the subject of disability has an air of taboo around it. Sport and competition have always been a great way of removing barriers and uniting people, and through events like this, we can celebrate the unity of man and machine to synergistically enable performance.

So an intro into the 6 events – with the description taken from the event’s website.

Bike race with electrical muscle stimulation

“In the FES discipline, pilots with complete spinal cord injuries take part in a bike race with the help of functional electrical stimulation”

Agility course with motorised arm prostheses

“The muscle activity in the arm is detected and converted into the corresponding movement in the prosthesis.”

Virtual brain-computer interface race

“BCI involves detecting and then converting brainwaves into control signals, making it possible for participants to use their thoughts to control an avatar in a computer game.”

Obstacle course with motorised leg prostheses

“Controlling motorised prostheses is difficult: the wearer’s intended movements must be correctly conveyed to the leg prosthesis.”

Powered wheelchair race

“In order to tackle obstacles such as ramps, steps and slalom courses, the wheelchairs must be both manoeuvrable and strong.”

Powered exoskeleton race

“A participant with limited mobility can climb steps with the help of an exoskeleton.”

Photo from ETH Zurich / Alessandro Della Bella

So I implore, and urge each and every one of you to tune in on the 8th October. To visualise the latest in assistive device technology, to celebrate cutting-edge scientific research, to marvel at the sporting competition, to see how man and machine can coexist to enable ability, and finally to have a human conversation about the challenges of disability. Here are the important links!

LIVE STREAM: 8th October 09:30am CEST (or if you, like me find yourself watching from Australia, Saturday 8th October at 17:30. AEST).

Website –

Facebook :

Twitter: @cybathlon

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