Ekso Bionics seal new deal with US army to supply advanced technology for Special Forces

EKSO Bionics, who are not participating in Cybathlon but are developing bionic equipment for university teams in the competition, have this week announced a new deal with the U.S Special Operations Command. The deal is for the development of the robotic exoskeleton the United States has commissioned to be built for its soldiers.

The Tactical Assault Light Operator (TALOS) suit, which must be bulletproof, weaponised and have the ability to examine and monitor the vital organs of the wearer, is designed to also give the wearer superhuman strength and perception.

This is the third deal of its kind between the two groups, and Ekso Bionics’ previous work has led to the US Patent Office providing it with three new patents.

The Special Operations Command revealed in 2014 that plans to design the superior uniform for the Special Operations Forces were ongoing. In the long-term, plans have been made to complete a suit which provides complete ballistic protection – which has unsurprisingly drawn comparisons to video game character Master Chief from the Halo series.

It is believed that, at this initial stage at least, the suit would not be intended for an entire squad of Special Forces – such as the team which brought down Osama Bin Laden and inspired the critically-acclaimed film Zero Dark Thirty – and instead by used by a lead operator who could protect other units from harm by, for example, moving through doorways first.

“The suit has drawn comparisons with video game character Master Chief from the Halo series”

The issue of the weight of the suit on a soldier’s body is to be resolved by what has been termed ‘intelligent weight distribution’ and other pieces of equipment, such as advanced night vision, 3D audio and highly advanced communications gear can be combined with the suit.

Originally known as Berkeley Bionics, Ekso Bionics was founded in California just ten years ago and has received research grants from Berkeley University and the United States Department of Defense prior to the TALOS deal.

The company is working alongside Lockheed Martin on TALOS, as Lockheed Martin has an exclusive contract with the US military. Formed only 20 years ago, Lockheed Martin has grown to employ over 100,000 staff and has become one of the world’s largest defence suppliers.

As Inside Cybathlon revealed in 2014, Ekso Bionics are committed to their work on disabilities as well as the more high-profile deal with the military super-suits.

They say they “are committed to applying the latest technology and engineering to help people rethink current physical limitations and achieve the remarkable.”

Ekso Bionics rejected a chance to participate in the event due to their focus on the training of such devices rather than developing them for use in daily life.

CORRECTION: This article was edited on 28th May 2015 to make it clear that, while Ekso Bionics technology will be used by teams at Cybathlon, the company themselves will not be competing.


EXPLAINER: How does the Powered Wheelchair race work?

The Powered Wheelchair Race is perhaps the Cybathlon event most related to a Paralympic sport.

It is still a highly unique event, though, and people of varying levels of disability can compete in the race, which sees pilots manoeuvre powered wheelchairs through a series of tricky obstacles and tasks as quickly and accurately as possible.

As with the rest of Cybathlon, this is not just for show, and serves a function for improving the daily lives of each competitor through the fact that the skills it requires are transferable into real life.

This is obvious from the fact that the tasks include navigating around a table, slalom, going over ramps, through doors, ensuring you maintain control on cobblestones, manoeuvring tilted pats and also, perhaps most challengingly, overcoming a small flight of stairs.

In order to be eligible, pilots must be either paraplegic or tetraplegic, although any serious impairments which prevent them from walking will be accepted by the event’s organisers.

For obvious reasons, pilots need to have control of their wheelchair and, as such, will need to demonstrate that they have sufficient voluntary control of either their head, shoulder, hand, finger, or tongue and voice if they require an input device.

As part of keeping the competition fair despite the exciting technological race for the best equipment, the bikes must weigh less than 200kg, backpacks are not allowed, and the wheelchair must be less than 900mm.

For a somewhat more visual representation of the powered wheelchair race, check out the official video below:


Disability data: Sorting disabilities across the world by gender, age and wealth

Data from the World Health Organisation has shown the prevalence of disabilities across the world and categorised it in terms of age, gender and the wealth of the country.

The figures reveal that almost twice as many women have disabilities as men, while there are two times as many people with disabilities in Q1 countries, which are the poorest by income, than in Q5 countries, which are the richest.

The report draws a clear line between a thriving economy and the prevalence of disabilities, while also demonstrating, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the growth in disabilities as people grow older is monumental.

You can see the data below:

Untitled Infographic (1)

The report goes on to show that the highest amount of people with severe disabilities are from Africa, closely followed by the Eastern Mediterranean.

Across the world, over 10 per cent of people aged 60 and over suffer from severe disabilities, compared to 0.7 per cent of people aged 14 and under.


Boost for Cybathlon 2016 as data reveals positive impact of Paralympic Games on disability sport

Almost half of British people had a more positive view of disabled people within a year of the 2012 Paralympic Games, according to data released under the Opinions and Lifestyle Survey.

The ONS Survey shows that, in 2013, 49 per cent of almost 8,000 people said the London Games had caused them to see people with disabilities more positively, while a negligible amount viewed them more negatively.

The trend continued into 2014, where 41 per cent of 3,000 people said their view of disabled people had become more positive because of what they witnessed from the likes of David Weir and Ellie Simmonds on the tracks of the Olympic stadium and in the Olympic pool.


David Weir was one of the most successful athletes at the Paralympic Games

The data will provide a boost for the organisers of Cybathlon, who will be looking to capitalise on the growing level of interest in disability sport when the event begins next year.

In addition, research conducted just weeks after the Games had finished suggested over three quarters of people said they feel positive about the role of disabled people in British society as a direct result of the Paralympics.

The Games, which were covered by Channel 4, were the most highly viewed disability sport event in history and the attention led to Lord Sebastian Coe saying the Paralympics had “a seismic effect in shifting public attitudes.”

An official government report on the legacy of the Olympics and Paralympics, which was published this month, says 2012 provided disability sport with a clear “impetus” and reveals that UK Sport has increased funding for the Great Britain Paralympics team as a result of the huge success of the London Games.

Image: Creative Commons


The benefits of Cybathlon are overwhelming according to our readers

At the end of last week we launched a survey to find out whether our readers felt Cybathlon would be capable of advancing assistive technology, whether more should be done to encourage participation and whether people would watch the event on television… and the results are in.

Pie chart showing the results of a survey into Cybathlon. This is looking at whether assistive technology will be helped by Cybathlon

Click to view interactive chart

As you can see, it seems that the consensus is that Cybathlon will help improve and develop assistive technology for people with disabilities – nobody said it wouldn’t. The coming together of great scientific and engineering brains for the event is likely to see great steps made towards more efficient and useable technology.

Would you watch cybathlon on television

Click to view interactive chart

It also looks like Cybathlon could captivate the public with 74% saying they would watch the competition on television.

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 17.08.33

Click to view interactive chart

Image: Courtesy of Ekso Bionics™


Twitter accounts for 3D printing

Cybathlon will no doubt attract the big robotics companies from around the world, but could also be a showcase for products made using 3D printing.

If you’ve heard about the growth of 3D printing and want to get into it, here are the best 5 Twitter accounts to help you keep up with the world of 3D printing.

1. E-NABLE (Twitter: @Enablethefuture)

Global community of volunteers printing 3D-printed hands from their homes or workplaces, and delivering them for free to those in need.


2. Open Bionics (@openbionics)

Leading the way in making prosthetics cheaper, Open Bionics, founded by Joel Gibbard, are developing open source 3D-printed arms.

3. Matt Ratto (@mattratto)

Determined that prosthetics should not be something only those in the developed world can afford, Dr Matt Ratto from the University of Toronto is running a pilot project in Uganda delivering 3D-printed prosthetics.

4. Kidesign (@kidesign3d)

3D printing is not only a skill being honed by tech experts, but whizz-kids too, with the help of educational programmes offered by Kidesign.

5. Makerbot (@makerbot)

One of the leading 3D printer brands, Makerbot is attempting to make 3D printers affordable and reliable.


Q+A: NeuroCONCISE ready for real-time BCI challenge

The NeuroCONCISE team from the University of Ulster have entered the BCI discipline at Cybathlon 2016. We caught up with team leader Damien Coyle and asked him the questions you all wanted to know.

How did you hear about Cybathlon?

I got the first flyer at a BCI workshop I went to, so it was fairly early on that I knew it was happening. From there it was direct contact, because I’m really integrated within the BCI community.

What do you think about competitions for technology development?

I’m always interested in competitions and have been working in BCI since 2002. These types of things are challenging, and they can be difficult or time-consuming but they’re really good to get involved in as they help you validate what you’re doing. It’s a key thing to test your systems and your technologies.

Does Cybathlon differ from other competitions you’ve entered in the challenges it poses?

It is totally different because this is a real-time application challenge, and you’re working with people with physical impairments, as they are the pilots. Other BCI competitions give you a set of pre-loaded data that has been recorded and you have to give the labels of the different activities that the person was doing. There will be data with test labels and without, so it’s all offline data analysis. There’s no real-time element to it at all.

Why do you think Cybathlon has such a good format?

The other competitions have been a good test of algorithms and training, but it wasn’t testing the real-world. Cybathlon will test technology in a real-world setting with real-time control, and all the challenges that brings. There are so many things that could go wrong, so you have to deal with all that and try to produce the best outcomes at the competition.

Damien Coyle

Damien Coyle

Do you have a pilot?

I’ve got a guy locally to here and he’s young and enthusiastic. I think he is going to be our pilot now.

Will you go to the rehearsal?

Yes we have plans to go to that. We secured some funding and that is our intention. But because we had issues finding a pilot we’ve had a little bit of a setback in making progress planning for that. I have secured about £6,000 to cover it, and we are definitely confident we can make it even though we haven’t had a lot of sessions with the pilot.

How is the training going?

We will ramp it up in June, because I haven’t had much time to work on the real-time element.  We have the game from Cybathlon and have been doing some testing with able-bodied participants. We are making slow but steady progress on it.

Is the game different to what you expected?

It’s a challenging enough game! You are kind of expected to have three classes* and a no control state. Whereas we’ve been used to having two classes with the no control state not really necessary.  With the Cybathlon game there are three different things you have to do: one of them is jump, one is speed, and one of them is kick your opponent. You have to do these at certain times, but on top of that if the system detects you are doing these outside the movements it slows you or your character falls. You have to have the no-control state where the system detects you are not trying to do one of the other three. That is a challenge.

[*Class = technology normally involves the imagination of left and right movements, which are known as classes. So you imagine left to move the cursor or character left, and vice versa. There are targets on the left or the right, and that dictates what class you are aiming for. So it is class left, class right, or class 1, class 2.]


NeuroCONCISE logo

Image: Courtesy of NeuroCONCISE


REVEALED: Which event are Cybathlon followers most interested in?

  • Brain Computer Interface voted the most interesting event
  • Followed by bike race and powered wheelchair race
  • Revolutionary BCI technology allows people to communicate without speaking or moving

The Brain Computer Interface (BCI) event has been voted the most interesting event by InsideCybathlon readers, pipping the bike and powered wheelchair races to first place.

A survey conduced by InsideCybathlon asked readers one simple question: “Which Cybathlon event are you most interested in?” and provided the options of: BCI, bike race, leg prosthetics race, powered exoskeleton race and powered wheelchair race.

Almost half of the respondents voted for BCI, while over 20 per cent opted for the bike race, which is designed for pilots with complete spinal cord injuries and allows them to cycle around a track via the use of Functional Electrical Stimulation devices which enables them to pedal.

The results of the survey can be seen below:

which cybathlon event are you most interested in

The Brain Computer Interface event will see pilots negotiate a series of obstacles as part of a racing game played on computers, using only their minds.

Pilots will have to send appropriate commands to move out of the way of oncoming objects, while four pilots can compete in one race at any time.

The game is the next strand of development of brain computer interface technology, which – aside from Cybathlon events – is designed to be used to allow disabled people to communicate.

The technology remains relatively unheard of, though, and teams such as the Brainstormers, from Essex, are hoping the publicity generated by Cybathlon will help shine more light on the work they and the other teams are doing.

The InsideCybathlon team visited the Brainstormers, where team leader Ana Matran-Fernandez explained how pilots will control the virtual cars in the race.

“We will ask them [the pilot] to think and move the car,” she said. “So they think of moving their left hand or foot, or right hand or foot and the car will move in that direction.”

You can see our video interview with Ana here:


AUDIO: The impact of the London 2012 Paralympic games and David Weir on disability sports and what that means for Cybathlon 2016

Inside Cybathlon’s Sam Dean spoke to ESPN and Sunday Times sport journalist Justin Guthrie in the News UK building at London Bridge about what we can learn from the staggering success of the Paralympic Games in 2012.

Guthrie makes the point that the attention the Paralympics was given as a standalone event, coupled with a change in perceptions towards sport in recent years – as well as attitudes towards disabilities in society in general – have provided Cybathlon with the perfect platform from which to succeed.


AUDIO: ‘I could programme by 10’ says Shadow Robot’s Rich Walker

Back in March Rich Walker told us all about Shadow Robot and the incredible work they do to produce top of the range robotic hands and ship them all around the world.

In this short audio clip he explains his background, the frustrations of trying to do a PhD, and how he became involved with Shadow Robot.

Image: Courtesy of the Shadow Robot Company