Getting about is made easier

The technology helping disabled athletes is becoming mainstream

The life of people with disabilities has improved drastically thanks to advances in technology. Their mobility outside of the home has increased in leaps and bounds, to the extent that the technology may be used to benefit the able-bodied as well.

Philippe Croizon
Quadriplegic athlete Philippe Croizon on the Paris Dakar race (Photo: @Dakarpress)

Sports, and especially extreme sports, have always pushed technology forward: in the audiovisual industry, it was coverage of the 2014 Football World Cup that convinced many broadcasters to make the shift to 4K resolution technology for capture and transmission. The IEC is heavily involved in those areas, primarily under the aegis of IEC Technical Committee (TC) 100: Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment. Likewise, in the area of wearables and tracking devices, specific individual performances can lead to the testing of new technology powered by sensors. The IEC is equally very active in pushing Standards for sensor technology, most notably through IEC TC 47:  Semiconductor devices, which produces International Standards for the design, use and reuse of sensors as well as measuring and testing equipment. The rapidly increasing area of wearables comes under the remit of TC 124: Wearable electronic devices and technologies.

Philippe Croizon, a mould breaker

An important push is also taking place in the world of sport for the disabled, where accessibility and ease of use are some of the key drivers. Philippe Croizon’s recent sporting feats have pushed the envelope for athletes with disabilities, most notably his performance in the Paris-Dakar race at the beginning of the year: the quadriplegic athlete used a specially-designed car adapted by a French automotive company renowned for its cutting edge technology, tailoring everyday and racing cars to disabled requirements. Among the features of the specially-designed buggy are an automatic gearbox and hydraulic power steering. Thanks to the technology, coupled with Croizon’s extraordinary resilience, mental strength and state of physical fitness, the disabled athlete reached the finish line of this incredibly gruelling 14-day race, a feat many able-bodied drivers did not achieve. “Automatic gearboxes for buggies used on the Paris-Dakar did not exist. But we asked Freddy Valade from Off  Road Technology  based in the Vendée region of France to create one and he did in a period of four months. He was one of our key mechanics on the Dakar race,” Croizon explains.

According to Croizon, disabled performances like his are becoming the norm, as technology evolves. “There were three paraplegic athletes on the Dakar, in addition to me. One was driving a truck. Technology is moving so fast, most notably in the area of limb replacements and exoskeletons that I predict that in 10 to 15 years from now, trauma-based handicap will no longer exist!”

In his everyday life he uses an electronically-controlled car, equipped with technology developed by a Swiss company, which includes for instance the Abi Loader automatic wheelchair loading system. At the flick of a switch, Abi Loader opens the rear hatch of the car and delivers the wheelchair directly to the car door. A second press of the switch folds the Abi Loader back into the car while the user transfers to the wheelchair. The loader even closes the rear hatch behind itself.

The use of programmable electronic circuits, for instance the remote controlled devices employed by the Abi Loader, comes under the remit of TC 61 which oversees standardization about the safety of household and virtually every other electrical appliances, but also of TC 72: Automatic electronic controls is also active in this area.

More people with disabilities 

Without being perhaps quite as optimistic as Philippe Croizon, it is obvious that life is changing rapidly for people with disabilities as well as more widely for elderly people with mobility problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2050, the world’s population of those aged 60 and above is expected to total two billion, up from 900 million in 2015. 

While people are definitely getting older in high-income countries, the trend is bound to expand and affect less well-off areas of the world. The WHO predicts that in 2050, 80% of older people will be living in low- and middle-income countries. 

The number of people with disabilities is also growing throughout the world. It is partly a consequence of the population ageing – older people have a higher risk of disability. According to the WHO, there are one billion people in the world living with some form of disability.

The IEC Systems Committee on Active Assisted Living (SyC AAL) is leading the way in these areas, by adopting a systems-based approach and making sure that standards pertaining to the technologies helping the old and those with disabilities are interoperable.

Electric cars are adapting too

Electric cars are another area where technology advances are making huge strides as environmental concerns skyrocket, including electric vehicles (EVs) for people with disabilities. A US company has manufactured a small car that measures 7 x 5 feet and has no seats. The driver can just roll his or her wheelchair into the car from a pop-up back door. Designed for use on local roads, the vehicle can travel up to 25 miles per hour and costs around USD 25 000. IEC TC 69: Electric road vehicles and industrial trucks, and its subcommittees (SCs) work hard preparing International Standards for electric vehicles powered by self-contained batteries. For instance, the Joint Working Group (JWG) IEC TC 69/TC 21/SC21A which has published the 62660 family of Standards on lithium battery cells.

3D printing, a revolution

Wheelchair technology is also evolving fast in the wake of the two most recent Paralympics, first in London, then in Rio. According to the WHO, 70 million people in the world would require a wheelchair for moving inside around both in and outside of their homes but many people in the developing world cannot access them because they are too expensive. The organization estimates that only 5 to 15% of the world’s population has access to a wheelchair. When they do get one, in most cases it is not adapted to them at all in terms of weight, size or disability, partly to do with the costs involved in tailoring chairs to each person's specific requirements. London-based charity Hack-on-wheels is creating an online library of tried and tested open source designs, following the example of the well-publicized open source prosthetic arm and hand championed by volunteer network e-Nable. People will be able to search the archive to find what they require and then get it printed in 3D, making the chair easy to customize.

A Vienna-based lab has created a basic carbon frame braced with 3D-printed joints making it easily customizable and cheap. The same lab has produced a concept for a child’s wheelchair with parametric joints that can actually grow with the child. It includes a backrest made of foam based on a 3D body scan, which fits each individual perfectly and makes the chair much more comfortable.

The thread linking all these stories together is 3D printing and scanning. Without it, no cheap customizable devices can or will be created. The IEC is involved in this area through the Joint Technical Committee of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ISO/IEC JTC 1/Subcommittee (SC) 28 : Office equipment, which works on the standardization of some of the features and the testing of 3D scanners and printers.

Exoskeletons and prosthetic limbs

A lot of electronics are involved in creating the latest cutting-edge prosthetic limbs. One leading French company in that area has created the ALLUX knee – a smart remote-controlled limb. If the user stumbles, electronics take over control of the knee thanks to dedicated sensors which detect unsafe situations. Microprocessors immediately increase the hydraulic resistance so as to prevent the knee from suddenly buckling. An inbuilt lithium ion battery provides power for two to four days.

Last year, Nathan Copeland, a 28-year-old paraplegic American man was fitted with a prosthetic hand with two-way feedback. This not only enables him to control it, but also feel when it was being touched.

As Philippe Croizon stated, exoskeletons are no longer in the realm of science fiction.

As many will remember, the start of the 2014 Football World Cup was literally kicked off by Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old disabled athlete from Brazil wearing an exoskeleton developed by scientists from the Walk Again Project, a non-profit collaborative undertaking involving US, Swiss, Brazilian and German scientists. The free project aims to allow people with disabilities walk again by employing the latest technology developments, including virtual reality. The World Cup exoskeleton was powered by the athlete’s brain. He was wearing a cap which picked up brain signals and transmitted them to a computer in the exoskeleton’s back pack. Here they were decoded and sent to the exoskeleton’s legs. According to the scientists involved, this was the first time an exoskeleton has been controlled by brain activity and offered feedback to the athlete.

Things have already moved on since then as some exoskeletons have become commercially viable. One of them is a US device called ReWalk.

Much of this pioneering work has been reliant on Standards developed by IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices, as it relates to the sensors, which are used in virtual and augmented reality applications, as well as more specifically in eye-tracking and speech-recognition technologies.

Benefits for the able bodied

The advances in technology for athletes with disabilities are also finding their way into the mainstream, as able-bodied athletes reflect on how to use them. Philippe Croizon comments: “The human body has its limits and there is a stage when it will no longer be able to beat any records. That’s where technology comes in. In the not so distant future, able-bodied runners will probably perform with electronically-enhanced limbs as well, as it will improve their performance immeasurably.”

Some visionaries like Tesla founder Elon Musk believe that in the near future, we will probably all have to become cyborgs, increasing our capabilities in a world where robots will be the norm.

In a somewhat more likely scenario, the use of exoskeletons could also become widespread in the area of disaster relief, for instance, in situations where heavy weights need lifting after an earthquake.

Whatever the future holds, technology currently helping people with disabilities is leading the way for us all to benefit in the long run.