Congratulations to ReWalk Robotics for taking the gold medal at the first ever Cybathlon Exoskeleton Race. Half a dozen teams competed in the final round of the Cybathlon which was held on October 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. The exoskeletons and their operators had to navigate a six stage obstacle course designed to mimic the challenges of using the wearable devices in an urban environment.
All contestants suffered from mobility impairments and typically move around in a wheelchair when not using an exoskeleton. In the finals, the ReWalk Robotics team finished first, just ahead of the IHMC (Flordia Institute of Human and Machine Cognition), South Korea’s SG Mechatronics and EPFL (ÉCOLE POLYTECHNIQUE FÉDÉRALE DE LAUSANNE).
This is the first time we see exoskeletons publicly competing on an identical obstacle course. Before this, DARPA has done testing of various wearable robots on the same course, but results have been kept private.
Bigger is not better. There has been an internal debate in the exoskeleton community if larger or smaller devices are the way to go. The Cybathlon has now put that discussion to rest, at least when it comes to personal use devices meant to be utilized in villages and cities. Smaller is better. The ReWalk is a significantly smaller and lighter device than many of the other competitor’s exoskeletons, but it was not underpowered.
Upper body strength is key. One thing that a person will always find on exoskeleton websites is the requirement for upper body strength. It makes sense that a person has to be able to balance themselves and stay stable by always forming a three-sided pyramid using their crutches and the exo, but how much upper body strength is needed? Watching the Cybathlon, it turns out the answer is A LOT. The exoskeletons and their operators tilt whenever the terrain becomes uneven (such as ramps). The entire support falls on the crutches and the user’s upper body strength. In the Cybathlon Exoskeleton Race, the ReWalk Robotics team secured the gold partially because their exoskeleton is smaller and requires less effort to balance. In contrast, some other competitors had sweat dripping down their brows, highlighting the exertion they had to put in.
Experience and technique matter. Another unexpected result of the Cybathlon race was how obvious the technique and expertise of each exoskeleton user was a key for success. The very first obstacle, sitting and standing from a couch, featured a couch that was much lower and deeper than most competitors expected. Some of the exoskeleton users were caught by surprise, their faces twisting in pain as their bodies sunk deeper into the couch than anticipated and their arms remained locked in their crutches. Others had the maneuver down to a T and held the crutches only at the handle and allowed their hands to rotate naturally.
There was also a surprising variability in how the competitors approached each challenge. Some walked down the stairs facing forward; others faced backward. Back at the couch challenge, many of the users leaned backward making a triangle over the couch, but the South Korean team made a triangle in front of the couch and had more of a controlled fall than a sit (which worked just fine).
This afferms the claim by ReWalk Robotics that their customers tend to get bettter and better using the ReWalk Personal with each passing year.
Staying in your exo makes a good impression. The end of the race was just as exciting as the contest itself. The majority of the competitors were visibly tired and wanted to leave their exoskeletons as soon as they finished. But the operators of the top two teams stayed in their wearable robots at least through the medal ceremony. This made a really good impression.
Motion control is the next challenge. The medical exoskeleton subfield is the most mature in the exoskeleton industry. During the Cybathlon Exoskeleton Race, it appeared that it was the software motion control rather than the suit’s hardware that was slowing down the competitors. All competitors had to stop and tinker with touchscreens and buttons to switch between operational modes. Both of the top teams had to skip one challenge each, but it is hard to imagine it was due to hardware limitations based on how the pilots overcame the remaining five obstacles.
Once again, congratulations to ReWalk Robotics for winning the gold medal at the Cybathlon Exoskeleton Race! For everyone else that competed, it was a great way to exhibit and document their wearable robots.
Videos of the Cybathlon race:
The Cyathlon page has videos with commentary (in German) of almost the entire race including the preliminaries: http://www.srf.ch/kultur/wissen/srf-menschmaschine-das-volle-tv-programm-hier-nochmal-erleben-2?ns_source=app?ns_source=app?ns_source=app?ns_source=app
There are also several videos on YouTube taken or uploaded by the audience: