Robert Riener: CYBATHLON’s Road from 2016 to 2024 and beyond
CYBATHLON challenges teams from all over the world to develop assistive technologies that people with disabilities can use in their everyday lives. Here, CYBATHLON creator, Professor Robert Riener, tells us how he became inspired to create the competition, how it has changed since 2016, and his hopes for the future.
Professor Riener. Thank you for joining us. Let’s start with what inspired you to create CYBATHLON?
Well, it was about ten years ago when I realised through my scientific work that many assistive devices were not accepted by people with disabilities. For example, arms prostheses can be too complicated and too expensive, which means they end up in a drawer not being used. Wheelchairs were unable to climb stairs or are too broad to fit through a door, especially the ones made for use outside.
Then I saw a newspaper article about a competition where a man walked up the Willis Tower in Chicago using a powered knee prosthesis. 108 stories. I thought, ‘Wow, that is a great idea’!
I immediately decided to create an event, a competition, in Switzerland where I am based, for people who rely on and make assistive devices.
So that was your ‘Wow moment’ — what was the purpose behind the initial creation of CYBATHLON?
For me, it is about creating an inclusive society, and to do this we need to get rid of any kind of barriers; financial barriers but also social barriers, such as acceptance, both of the devices and of people. People can be nervous or afraid to meet people who are disabled. I wanted to establish an inclusive event that brings together people with and without disabilities and creates visibility, access and awareness in society about people with disabilities and the makers of assistive devices.
The first CYBATHLON took place in 2016, so it has been seven years already. Now you’re gearing up for the third CYBATHLON in 2024. How has it changed over the years?
Yes, that’s right. We organise the main CYBATHLON event every four years.
CYBATHLON is a competition with several disciplines where pilots – people with disabilities – use a range of devices to perform everyday tasks.
What has changed is that the races now have more mature, more challenging obstacles. The development of the devices has progressed so we have to make adaptations to the challenges and the difficulty levels of the tasks. We also created two more disciplines, to a total of eight.
Lastly, we’ve become more inclusive by making it a hybrid competition. Teams and their pilots can join us live in the stadium and other teams can stay at home and join the competition by setting up the race infrastructure there. This is especially important for teams that might not be able to afford the travel or where the pilots are unable to travel.
That’s great, and it really speaks to the advances in technology you are now seeing at CYBATHLON. What are you most excited about currently in the world of assistive technology?
As an engineer, it is exciting to see how the technologies have really developed and advanced over the years so that we see astonishing devices like stair-climbing wheelchairs.
It sounds like CYBATHLON really helps foster innovation. How do you see it helping to grow that industry to its fullest potential?
CYBATHLON attracts and motivates many teams to develop novel devices that have meaningful applications because we're designing the races in a way that the pilots have to perform the tasks they need to do in their daily lives.
We are also pushing the limits of market development and novelty because the teams have to complete their devices on a deadline in order to compete. There have already been many new journal papers, publications about novel inventions. Other devices have launched as companies, specialising in prosthetic devices, which are now commercially available.
But the most important thing is that we have been able to increase acceptance of devices by potential users and other stakeholders who might need to buy the devices. They see that these devices are really helpful in the ways they need them to be.
And what do you see in the future for CYBATHLON?
My hope is that the CYBATHLON keeps growing and gets more attention so we can create a more inclusive society.
CYBATHLON creates a certain spirit. I'm amazed by the emotions I see there. The teams and their pilots expend a lot of effort and are highly motivated to participate. The spectators see that. At the last CYBATHLON, there was such a great atmosphere in the stadium, the spectators were engaged and shouting and crying. That was really one of the most emotional things I've ever experienced in my life.