TOKYO -- A gold medal-winning prosthetic- limbed athlete is just one of the advances in robotics Japanese engineers want to get across the line in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Robotics will likely figure prominently at the games, doing everything from stage-managing athletic conferences to guarding the athletes' village to entertaining visitors. The technology will not only assist disabled athletes, but also bring out their potential.
The 100-meter sprint, the marquee event of the games, thrills audiences around the world despite lasting only about 10 seconds. Now, a team of Japanese robotics engineers is hoping to produce the world's fastest 100-meter sprinter with artificial legs.
The team is led by Ken Endo of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, a subsidiary of Sony. His ambition is to help a Japanese athlete with prosthetic limbs clock the fastest time in the 100 meters among all athletes at the 2020 Games -- disabled and able-bodied alike.
Inspired to make prosthetics for a friend who had an amputation, Endo studied physical performance and prosthetic limbs at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the U.S., earning a doctoral degree. Since then, he has developed artificial legs for athletes and robotic limbs for the handicapped. His final goal: "for the disabled to outperform the able-bodied."
The F1 car of prosthetics
Endo is working on a blade-type prosthetic made of carbon fiber. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, who set a world record in the 200 meters at the 2012 London Paralympics, wore the same type of prosthetic. However, his were made by Ossur, an Icelandic company that commands a large market share for prosthetic legs for athletes. Pistorius also ran at the London Olympics but did not medal. Last year, he was found guilty of the culpable homicide of his girlfriend, fading from the world of track and field.
However, in pursuit of his dream Endo hit a wall. He realized simply developing high-performance prosthetics alone could not shave althletes' times, and that he needed to tap into the knowledge of experienced athletes to improve his bionic legs.
Endo met Olympic hurdler Dai Tamesue, who is passionate about handicapped people's participation in sport. He and Endo clicked immediately.
In May last year, the two set up Xiborg along with Anri Sugihara, managing director of RDS, an industrial design company that developed a chair ski for disabled skiers.
The company has got three top Japanese athletes with prosthetic limbs on board. Xiborg meets once a month, and under the guidance of Tamesue, the athletes learn how to use the propulsive push-off of the blades. Their running styles are monitored to assist further development. "The three athletes each have different body types and running styles. Designing prosthetic limbs to suit their characteristics should lead to better times," Endo said.
Endo also has another mission: to make affordable robotic limbs for non-athletes. Comparing blade prosthetics to an F1 racing car, Endo says he would like to create a "car" for the disabled. Most below-knee prosthetics are nondynamic, forcing wearers to walk by pulling their feet up with their thigh muscles, so Endo has embraced robotics. "When you step forward or push off with your toes to walk, you spontaneously change the angle of your ankle. Robotic technology can make prosthetics to imitate that motion," Endo explained.
A robotic limb can be built with a sensor, motor and computer, so it can detect the landing of the foot and give a strong rotational force at the ankle to help propel push-off.
Endo has lowered the cost of making robotic legs, and hopes to start selling them from 2018.
Endo has entered the world's first-ever Cybathlon, an Olympics for bionic athletes, to be held in Zurich, Switzerland, in October 2016. The event includes six races, including one that allows totally paralyzed people to compete by controlling an avatar via a brain interface.
The event is the brainchild of Robert Riener, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the University of Zurich. Known for his work on rehabilitation robotics, Riener hopes the Cybathlon will encourage disabled people's participation in sports, and spark public interest. Endo, an acquaintance, echoes his thinking.