International competition for ‘cyborgs’ at Chalmers

Chalmers University of Technology

​Chalmers University of Technology will be one of the arenas for the international Cybathlon 2020 competition, that will take place on 13-14 November. Two Swedish competitors will be lining up, each using a mind-controlled and sensate arm prosthesis to solve the challenges they will face in the race. More than 60 teams from 25 countries will participate from their home arenas around the world. The winner is the team that manages to blur the boundaries between man and machine most successfully.

Cybathlon has been called a ‘Cyborg Olympics’. The competition is aimed at participants who have physical disabilities and use various types of advanced aids with built-in robot technology. The races consist of elements from everyday life, that can be difficult to perform for those who wear a prosthesis or use a wheelchair. The goal of Cybathlon is to showcase what is currently possible to perform, and to drive forward the development of prostheses and other types of assistive aids.

Is it possible to tie shoelaces with a mind-controlled arm prosthesis?

This year, Sweden is represented by two participants, both of whom are competitors in the Powered Arm Prosthesis Race. They are supported by a team formed by Chalmers University of Technology, Sahlgrenska University Hospital and Integrum AB. The team is sponsored by the Promobilia Foundation and Integrum AB.
Team leader is Max Ortiz Catalan, the Chalmers researcher who has been in charge of developing the world’s first mind-controlled and sensate prosthesis usable in daily life, which in 2013 was implanted on a patient. The prostheses worn by the Swedish participants are among the most sophisticated in the world, as they are directly connected to the person’s skeleton, nerves and muscles. This prosthesis also provides sensations of touch owing to the safe and reliable connection between the prosthesis and the nervous system.
“This interface is one of the world’s most integrated, allowing to connect man and machine. So far, this is the closest you can get to make a limb prosthesis part of the human body”, says Max Ortiz Catalan, Associate Professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at Chalmers. “This new concept of neuromusculoskeletal prostheses makes it possible for our patients to experience sensations of touch in everyday life, but more importantly, a reliable control over their new arm.”
Due to the Corona pandemic, the Cybathlon, which otherwise would have taken place in a crowded arena in Switzerland, has been moved to the participants’ home countries. On 13 November, a qualifying competition will be held in about 40 places around the world, including Chalmers as the only arena in Sweden. Identical tracks are built at all venues. The competition will be streamed live to Switzerland and broadcast from the organiser, the Swiss University ETH Zürich.
The Swedish contestants will compete on a course with six different stations, the tasks including setting a breakfast table, hanging laundry on a clothesline, and handling a hammer and nail. A new event added this year is a box where the competitors will identify objects, by only using touch.
“In addition to a precise and reliable control over the prosthesis, our competitors have the unique advantage to be able to feel with their prosthesis, which will allow them to perform well in the sensory discrimination task”, says Max Ortiz Catalan.
“Another unique feature of our team is that the prosthetic system our contestants will use in the competition is the same they wear in their daily professional and personal activities. This is currently the only prosthetic limb using bidirectional implanted electrodes in the world that can be used safely and reliably outside research laboratories, where it matters the most for patients – in their daily lives.”
The top four contestants in each discipline will qualify for the final, which will be held on Saturday 14 November.
Text: Yvonne Jonsson
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