Our young innovators with a vision really made Hong Kong proud! In the world’s first Cybathlon in Switzerland in which the world’s latest assistive devices show their power in Paralympic-like tournaments, two wheelchairs created in Hong Kong and piloted by physically impaired athletes from Hong Kong made it to the top five, ahead of the creations of some of the world’s top ranking universities.
The pilots of the wheelchairs were put through their paces on the race tracks designed with real-life obstacles – they had to steer their wheelchairs to fit snuggly under a desk, slalom along a lineup of poles and manoeuver their ride over a bumpy surface formed of blocks. Then came the moment of truth when they had to climb up and down stairs of dicey inclinations, unassisted.
One or two wheelchairs toppled over in climbing stairs, but the creations of the Hong Kong teams, HKUSTwheels and B-Free in City, excelled in the competition. The HKUSTwheels wheelchair controlled by the only female athlete received award in the competition, Carol Ng Cho Yu, came in second, just pipped to the post by a home-based Swiss team. B-Free in the City was no slouch either, and came in 5th in the race, still ahead of some hot favourites such as the teams from Imperial College London and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).Encouraging assistive robotics
Innovators making assistive robotics are by no means building castles in the air, as such devices are much needed not only for the physically impaired, but also for the increasingly sizable elderly population in our ageing world. Being able to control an intelligent wheelchair unstoppable by ubiquitous barriers such as staircases, or use exoskeleton to move around and lift heavy things, will certainly gift a new sense of freedom to elderly folks hampered by bad joints or weakening limbs.
Cybathlon achieved its goal of shining the spotlight on the attributes of such assistive robotics. The 66 teams from around the world taking part in the event showcased some of the most functional assistive devices in the six categories of the Cybathlon races: powered arm and leg prosthesis, powered wheelchair, electrical simulation bike, brain-computer interface, and powered exoskeleton.
There are certainly more entities than just the Cybathlon contestants working on robotics for different needs. A couple of Hong Kong R&D teams that didn’t make it to Cybathlon or didn’t finish for reasons other than the functionality of the designs are working on biomedical technology to assist the motor function of stroke or spiral cord injury patients and brain-controlled robotics to assist movements of the paraplegic, for example.
HKSTP feels strongly about robotics development, and indeed it is one of the three key platforms behind which HKSTP is throwing its weight. The success of the Hong Kong teams in the Cybathlon is an encouraging outcome proving that Hong Kong is making significant strides in robotics technology and is carving a niche in the global innovation of assistive robotics.