The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in collaboration with Nelson Mandela University (NMU) will proudly represent South Africa in the 2020 Global CYBATHLON Championship to be hosted in Switzerland on 13 and 14 November 2020.
UKZN and NMU, with the support of the Robotics Association of South Africa and the Swiss Embassy, are the only participants selected from South Africa and Africa.
CYBATHLON is an international multi-sport event in which around 60 teams, consisting of persons with physical disabilities, from 20 countries compete to complete everyday tasks using state-of-the-art technical assistance systems.
Organised under the umbrella of public research university, ETHZürich, the event also serves to advance research in the field of assistive technology and to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities in everyday life.
The South African team, made up of researchers, academics and postgraduate students is led by lecturer in the Discipline of Mechanical Engineering at UKZN, Professor Riaan Stopforth, who was approached by the National Centre for Competence in Research (NCCR) Robotics in Switzerland and selected to compete in the ARM / Powered Arm Prosthesis Race for the innovative design of the Touch Hand– a low-cost arm prosthesis that was originally designed by Stopforth and UKZN MSc graduate, Mr Drew van der Riet in 2013. Since then, Stopforth has worked with other scholars to improve the design. The current research focus is to improve on the functionality of the Touch Hand.
Each participating team primarily consists of a technology developer and a person with a disability, referred to as a pilot, who is expected to carry out several predetermined tasks across six stations using the assistance technology. The tasks in the race are designed to reflect everyday activities that can be challenging for people with disabilities, eg, tying a shoelace, buttoning a coat, slicing bread or opening a tin can. While solving the respective tasks in competition, it is shown how well the developed technology is suited to support the pilot in everyday life.
‘The true purpose of our research and development is to make a difference in a person’s life, not money that is what drives and motivates us,’ said Stopforth.
The team has been developing the prosthesis with the aim of making it affordable for low-income households and countries while still incorporating advanced technologies, ‘CYBATHLON is a good opportunity for us to compare, a benchmark to see where we stand, but we are also happy to celebrate the event and our work. The pilots (persons with disabilities) encounter many barriers, many of which we do not even notice. We often think that we understand what they go through every day, but that’s not the case!’
Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, teams will not be travelling to Zurich this year and CYBATHLON 2020 will take place in a new format, in each team’s home country. Teams will set up their infrastructure according to Swiss regulations and film their races. Instead of starting directly next to each other, the pilots will start individually and under the supervision of CYBATHLON officials. From Zurich, the competitions will be broadcast through a new platform in a unique live programme. The organising committee will support the teams remotely and the officials will also act as referees and perform the required technical and medical checks.
As the teams are spread across different locations, they will race at different times. Video footage of the races will be sent in realtime to ETHZürich and spectators can follow all the action on the website www.cybathlon.com. Updates of the team activities will also be available at www.touchprosthetics.com.
The South African Powered Arm Prosthesis heatswill take place at 12h20, 12h48 and 13h16 at the Howard College campus on Friday, 13 November. Each team’s best race time and results will be broadcast on the CYBATHLON YouTube channel later that evening around 18h00 Central African Time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges for the team. Technical manager for this project and lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at NMU, Mr Clive Hands said that having the team separated and working remotely to prepare and finalise the Touch Handfor the big race was no easy feat, ‘The lockdown period had a huge impact and we found ourselves severely compromised; however, we embraced the challenges and are ready to give our best on race day.’
Hands added that team spirit is extremely positive and no matter the points on the scoreboard, they are motivated by the greater goal of making a difference, ‘Our main target is to produce a low-cost prosthesis that can ultimately be used by our pilot amputee, Mr Lungile Dick, and add value to his life. That is our first prize!’
Dick lost his hand following a tragic accident while he was repairing a machine at a boxing company, about 15 years ago. He now works as a trainer at a Volkswagen training facility in Port Elizabeth. As an amputee and person living with disability, Dick says he is excited about the Touch Hand, ‘I hope that in the future, when the prosthesis is further developed, it will reduce my physical handicap and help others in developing countries.’ Dick has a sporting background as a professional tennis player with provincial colours and he also played table tennis, chess, cricket and volleyball at Varsity level.
The SA Team members are:
– Director and Team Leader – Professor Riaan Stopforth
– NMU lecturer in Mechanical Engineering – Mr Clive Hands
– Primary Pilot – Mr Lungile Kenneth Dick
– NMU Postgraduate students – Mr Daniel Trask, Mr Jode Fourie, Ms Sthuthi Varghese and Mr Zaahid Imran
– Former UKZN student – Mr Kiran Setty
– Backup Pilot/amputee – Mr Darren Hauptfleisch
– Referee and Technical Check person – Mr Charl Rossouw
– Time-keeper – Ms Wendy Janssens
CYBATHLON was initiated in 2013 by Robert Riener, Professor of Sensory-Motor Systems at public university, ETHZürich and the first international competition took place in 2016. The idea for the CYBATHLON was inspired by athletes, such as the first runner with a motorised leg prosthesis to climb the Chicago Willis Tower, and the first runner with lower body paralysis to use an exoskeleton to run the London Marathon.
About Touch Hand
This prosthetic hand is a bio-mechatronic system, integrating the Disciplines of Mechanical Engineering, Electronics Engineering, Computer Engineering and Biology. The Touch Hand, now in its fourth design iteration, consists of a mechanical exterior with an electronic interior, with the movement of the fingers controlled by an amputee through the use of small electrode pads placed on her/his residual muscles, which sense muscle contractions.
This innovative project has garnered support from FAULHABER, Horne Technologies, Rapid 3D, Axiology Labs, the Swiss Embassy in South Africa, Robotics Association of South Africa, Department of Science and Technology (DST) ROSSA programme, Custom Works Composite Engineering, Axxess, Innovative Dental Solutions, Jendamark, nTopology, BunnyCorp and Volkswagen, to name but a few.
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Words: Sejal Desai