Power players: assistive technology

Bionic legs and i-limbs brought the extraordinary ability of thousands of paralympians into the spotlight this summer. Vision.ae takes a look at the innovative technologies and inspirational inventions that are changing the face of disability all over the world

“It’s probably the most exhilarating, violent sporting activity you can witness,” enthused Mayor of London Boris Johnson, unable to contain his excitement watching a game of wheelchair basketball. The former niche sport now enjoys mainstream popularity thanks to the 2012 Paralympic Games; an event which captured the global imagination and highlighted how disability can be overcome with determination and spirit.

This year, the UAE sent 15 competitors to compete in the London games. The team included the nation’s first Paralympic gold medal winner, weightlifter Mohammed Khamis Khalaf, and sharp-shooter Abdulla Sultan Alaryani who won gold in the R6-50 prone rifle shooting event. Cheers were also heard for Mohammed Hammadi who took silver and bronze in the 200m T34 and 100m T34 wheelchair sprints, respectively.

Adapting equipment

To ensure Hammadi and his co-competitors were able to compete, an army of technicians worked behind the scenes to maintain the thousands of pieces of specialist equipment needed to transform disability into ability. Equipment included South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ state-of-the-art carbon fibre running blades designed to mimic the actions of a cheetah’s leg and Alaryani’s wheelchair, which was adapted to provide the stability needed to shoot accurately under pressure.

Paralympians in the 21st Century are able to compete at levels the original Paralympians – wounded World War II veterans who held their own Games at London’s Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948 – could only have dreamt of. But while 2012 kit utilises revolutionary materials and design, under sporting rules it can only assist athletes up to a point and not enhance their performance. Motorisation and robotics – the cutting edge staples of advanced everyday prosthesis – are banned under sporting rules.

German-based mobility aid developer Ottobock was the official technical service provider for the Paralympics. Brand manager Christin Gunkel explains: “Equipment such as running blades hasn’t developed at all in the last four years. The reason so many records were broken at the 2012 Paralympics was the training methods and the professionalism of the athletes. Technology enables them to compete, but it doesn’t enhance performance. It is only as advanced as it can be within the limits of the rules of the sport.”

Despite the strict rules, technicians were able to use some innovative technology to develop equipment. Racing wheelchairs, for example, were designed using technology more commonly utilised in Formula One. Some racers were monitored in wind tunnels and had their aerodynamic profiles mapped by computer. As a result, aluminium plates were added under racers’ knees to smooth airflow. Several wheelchair basketball players benefited from customised foam and plastic seats. Other developments seen were two handled tennis rackets and specialist frames for discus throwers, which replaced heavy stools used previously.

Everyday prosthetics

The Paralympic Games highlighted some advances in sports mobility equipment; however, the real advanced innovations are taking place in everyday prosthetics. Ottobock, a manufacturer known for its work with prostheses, rehabilitation aids and wheelchairs, has recently launched a leg prosthesis called the Genium fitted with micro-processors which read and anticipate changes in walking patterns. “The device allows people to master obstacles by letting them take one or two steps back – which doesn’t sound like much but it is revolutionary,” explains Ottobock’s Gunkel. “The processor in the knee and ankle joint knows what phase of walking you are in and knows when the person wants to take a step back. It reacts accordingly, providing all important stability.”

Indeed, developers have seen a spike in interest in assistive medical technology thanks to the Games. To coincide with the event, trade organisation UK Trade and Investment held the Advances in Assistive Medical Technologies Global Business Summit earlier this month. The initiative included a visit to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, to view the state-of-the-art rehabilitation equipment and systems in practice.

Several new developments were announced at the event including Touch Bionics’ new launch: the world’s first prosthetic hand with five individually powered fingers. The firm revealed that is now developing Pattern Recognition, the interpretation of brain signals using advanced software to provide intuitive control of the movements of prosthetic limbs. Ottobock is developing a similar product with feedback sensors, which tell the wearer whether an object being held is hot or cold. The games may be over for this year, but legacy of interest in life sciences it has sparked will last for generations.