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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:

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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.

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Ekso Bionics exoskeleton Ekso Bionics™
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AUDIO: The man behind Cybathlon, Professor Robert Riener

We spoke to Professor Robert Riener to discuss his motivation for founding Cybathlon, the global popularity of it so far and how the team at NCCR Robotics came up with the term.

5 key points to take away:

  1. The motivation to form Cybathlon was that: “a lot of developments do not satisfy the real needs of the patient who are using a wheelchair that can still not climb stairs or are wearing knee prostheses which are not actuated and make it cumbersome to climb ramps or stairs”
  2. The organisers wanted to call the event the Cyberlympics, but were forbidden by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who have strict regulations on using terms related to the Olympics. They will go back to the IOC in the future to see if some agreement can be made for future editions of Cybathlon.
  3. He is amazed by the reaction to Cybathlon, especially how well the public have responded to a new term. Since they coined the phrase, a search on Google now shows 50,000 links and several news organisations have publicised the event.
  4. They have had 50 binding registrations for Cybathlon so far, and need between 80 and 100 teams to have enough people in each discipline competing against each other.
  5. Broadcasters from UK, USA, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Japan have shown an interest in making documentaries on Cybathlon or live broadcasting the event

Image: Courtesy of Ekso Bionics™

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BCI pilot told he’s ineligible

Jonathan Brough was one of the first people to sign up for Cybathlon. Now, two months on, he’s been told he can’t compete.

The reason? He has a pacemaker.

Given how excited he was about competing, he’s understandably gutted about the news, but ensures us he is talking to his GP to work out a way for him to be eligible again. At present, this leaves Team Imperial, involving scientists at Imperial College, pilot-less.

“Due to the fact that I have a pacemaker the organisers are saying, for safety reasons, I can no longer take part,” he told us.

“I’m still working with Imperial College in designing and testing and intend to go to Cybathlon 2016, its just that at this point I will not be allowed to take part in the races. I have discussed this with my G.P. who is currently looking into it.”

Linda Seward, of NCCR Robotics, explained the ruling to us:

“The reason for the exclusion criteria for pacemakers is that as the participating devices may not be CE certified they may interfere with a pacemaker, so it’s a safety precaution.”

If you didn’t read our original interview with Jonathan, he contracted meningitis in 2007 and has been paralysed ever since.  Now 26, he lives near Stroud with two round-the-clock carers, but did not let it stop him completing a degree at Plymouth University.

As part of his preparation for Cybathlon, he had just started learning how to use a BCI, as he normally speaks with air from his ventilator. To control his wheelchair he uses a lip joystick, but the Rio Tinto team had been developing eye control for him.

Fortunately, Jonathan has found something to take his mind off the disappointment.

“I’m still finding it difficult to understand their decision but am hoping to go skiing in Milton Keynes next week.”

For a former skiing enthusiast, that is certain to lift his mood.

Jonathan Brough is aided by his carers.

Team effort: Jonathan Brough is aided by his carers.

Images: Courtesy of Jonathan Brough

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