“It will be possible to integrate exoskeletons into clothes”

Professor Robert Riener from the ETHZ once read about a man who climbed 103 flights of stairs in the Willis Tower in Chicago using a motorized prosthesis. This is when the idea of the Cybathlon gradually started to develop. Now that the event is becoming reality, Riener talks to us about his pet project.



Stefan Roschi Editorial team

Robert Riener, what do you want the Cybathlon to achieve?

Our aim is to present the results of our research to a wider public and, at the same time, to raise awareness for the needs of people with physical disabilities. Unfortunately, many people know very little about the challenges faced by people with disabilities and the limitations of modern assistive technologies. With the Cybathlon, we hope to change this and break down barriers.

What difficulties are involved in developing electrically powered aids?

The main problem is that engineers do not have enough contact with disabled people or with doctors and therapists. This means that they are not aware of the actual needs. As a result, the products they develop often miss the point, and the functionality and acceptance levels of new devices end up being unsatisfactory.

And from a technical perspective?

The power-to-weight ratio represents the main challenge. A stable wheelchair is automatically heavier. The same thing applies to exoskeletons. For a wearer to move about freely for an entire day, the battery has to be very powerful. But this means that it is also large and heavy.

«Engineers need to be in closer touch with people with disabilities»

Does this cause problems for the actuators?

The actuators need a very good power-to-weight ratio so that they can generate the powerful forces needed for body movements, while the devices remain small and easily wearable. This also means that they must be highly efficient, which in turn helps to keep the amount of heat generated to a minimum. This is important for the user's comfort and safety.

What is the current status of research into powered assistive systems?

The technology is now relatively advanced. For example, some prosthetic legs allow users to walk faster than a person with two real legs can. But these prostheses can only be used for very specific movements. You cannot sit down or drive a car while wearing one. Most aids have major deficiencies when it comes to everyday functions. This is where the idea for the Cybathlon came in. It involves systems which provide disabled people with help where they most need it – in everyday life.

What do you think the research situation in this area will be like in ten years' time?

Assistive systems will be more powerful and more robust. They will also provide a wider range of functions. This is the only way that systems can gain acceptance among a wide range of users and have a chance of commercial success. It will also be possible to incorporate many types of system, such as exoskeletons and muscle stimulators, into clothes. This will make the technology more comfortable and more aesthetically appealing, which will also increase its acceptance even further.

What will happen after the first staging of the Cybathlon?

We have aroused a huge amount of interest throughout the world. There are a number of universities, companies, and government institutions that want to run the Cybathlon or parts of it under license. However, the main event will probably still take place in Zurich every four years. There will also be national competitions, events for individual disciplines, and roadshows in other countries. It is important for us to launch a movement and for it to continue with new developments and events in line with our motto: “Cybathlon – moving people and technology”.

maxon motor is a sponsor of the Cybathlon. What is your experience of the company?

We are very pleased to be working with maxon. The company has helped us a great deal with a number of different technical challenges and has also been extremely inventive. For example, maxon motor developed an automatic, height-adjustable podium for the medal ceremony that makes it easy for the competitors to climb on and off and is certain to impress the audience. When talking to teams from all over the world, we also noticed that maxon technology and the company itself are very well known. 

The Cybathlon

People and technology
in competition

Professor Robert Riener is the inventor and organizer of the first Cybathlon games that will be held on October 8, 2016 in the Swiss Arena in Zurich. Around 80 teams from all over the world will be taking part. The machine-assisted competitors will compete against one another in six disciplines: prosthetic legs, prosthetic arms, exoskeletons, motorized wheelchairs, bicycles with muscle stimulation, and virtual racing using thought control.

What's disallowed at the Paralympics is more than welcome at the Cybathlon: the use of state-of-the-art technology. Both athletes and developers can win medals. As Robert Riener explains: “Our aim with the Cybathlon is to break down barriers between the general public, people with disabilities, and scientists.”


Cybathlon Special magazine

Interested in the Cybathlon event in Zürich? Order a copy of the Cybathlon Special magazine by maxon motor right now:


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