Cutting-edge technology reshapes the Paralympics

Innovative virtual reality techniques and 3D printing are making major contributions to the production of high-tech sports equipment for athletes with disabilities

By Antoinette Price

Paralympians successfully overcome physical, visual and intellectual impairments, but their equipment can impact their performance.

Chair control is key to the game It's all about chair control (Photo: British Wheelchair Basketball)

Engineering for sports

Over the last decade, sports equipment manufacturers, engineers, university researchers and diverse industries, including automobile, aerospace and defense, have been working together to refine the equipment used in Paralympic summer and winter sports. Advanced designs and testing processes incorporating the latest technologies and materials offer athletes greater comfort, stability and mobility, so that they can focus on performance.

The standardization activities of several IEC Technical Committees (TCs) and Subcommittees (SCs) contribute towards ensuring the safety and reliability of electronic or electrotechnical components incorporated in this equipment and the systems used to test and measure them.

Reinventing the wheelchair

Wheelchair racing is an exciting sport which has evolved greatly since the first official Paralympics held in London in 1948. Back then, chairs could weigh up to 23 kilos; modern ones weigh just two.

Until recently, athletes were crammed into chairs with loose foam for padding and retention. They had to try to maintain their balance while pushing the wheels as hard and fast as possible.

However, over the last decade, several industries have been teaming up with the sports world to fine-tune equipment for disabled athletes. One such partnership with UK Sport has produced a state-of-the-art wheelchair that includes several technologies. A leading German automotive manufacturer used a 3D scan of a seated athlete to produce a personalized chair. From the scan, a digital model was made, simulating the aerodynamic changes that occur when athletes move. This resulted in modifications to the chair frame, reducing its drag by 15%. Drag affects the ability to maintain speed, especially when hitting a headwind or an incline. The chair was run through tests in British Aerospace (BAE) wind tunnels to assess its aerodynamic efficiency, and its manoeuvrability was measured using tracking technology developed by a prominent Formula 1 racing team.

As for wheelchair basketball, personalized seats have enabled athletes to move as one with the equipment. They offer greater stability when athletes make quick turning movements and reduce overall equipment weight. The plastic prototype chairs were made by 3D-sintering machines adding layer by layer over a period of 24 hours.

The winning technology

A lot goes on behind the scenes when digital modelling and 3D scanning make use of virtual and augmented reality applications. Several Subcommittees (SCs) of the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee (JTC) 1: Information technology, produce International Standards for 2D and 3D multimedia.

ISO/IEC JTC1/SC 28: Office equipment, works on the standardization of basic characteristics, test methods and other related items of products, including 3D scanners among others. ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 29: Coding of audio, picture, multi-media and hypermedia information, publishes International Standards for data formats designed to enable the use of 2D/3D multimedia content.

Other IEC TCs and SCs develop International Standards for the electric and electronic components used in 3D printers for different manufacturing processes, such as:

  • Switches and relays – IEC TC 17: Switchgear and controlgear and IEC TC 121: Switchgear and controlgear and their assemblies for low voltage, and their SCs
  • Servo and stepper motors used to move the extrusion head or the sintering laser – IEC TC 2: Rotating machinery
  • Power supplies – IEC TC 96: Transformers, reactors, power supply units, and combinations thereof

The work of IEC TC 76: Optical radiation safety and laser equipment, the leading body on laser standardization, is vital to 3D printing. It encompasses the different types of lasers used for sintering metals and polymers and in industrial and research applications.

Hearing the bull's eye

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 285 million people worldwide are visually impaired (39 million blind and 246 million with low vision). This is particularly challenging for athletes because, whatever the sport, eyesight is vital. However, clever electronics are making it possible for the visually impaired to participate in more disciplines by relying on other senses such as hearing, for example for target shooting.

Does it sound unbelievable? Here’s how it works. A normal 10m air rifle is fitted with a special telescope, containing electronics that convert the amount of light it receives into a tone of varying pitch. The target centre is white and turns from grey to black, going outwards. Bright light shone on the white target reflects back onto the air rifle’s sight (the part used to line up the target). This light is converted into acoustics which are transmitted to the shooter via headphones. The higher the pitch, the closer their aim is to the bull’s eye.

More IT tools for the visually impaired

In an increasingly digitalized world, visually impaired people have issues when accessing and using television equipment (operating a remote control, inability to see subtitles, navigating channels and TV inputs, using other services, etc.).

A Technical Report, IEC TR 62678, Audio, video and multimedia systems and equipment activities and considerations related to accessibility and usability, is published by IEC TC 100: Audio, visual and multimedia systems and equipment, and can be downloaded free of charge. It is the result of extraordinary co-operation between, and contributions from, a wide range of experts. Many other IEC TCs have also addressed Standards relevant to accessibility in order to provide graphical symbols; marking and identification; electrical accessories; semiconductor devices and sensors and so on. IEC TC 100 has also developed International Standards for the provision of audio description, including text services and subtitling, as well as for specifying the “text-to-speech functionality for a (broadcast) [digital] receiver with a text-to-speech system”.

When it comes to reading, audiobooks can be very useful. IEC TC 100/TA 10: Multimedia publishing and e-book technologies, covers the format and player requirements for such books, ensuring compatibility with music industry and multimedia standards.

Exciting developments for the sports world

The London 2012 Paralympics was a turning point in the history of the Games. It greatly highlighted the importance of sport for disabled people, while attracting a number of high-tech industries which continue to invest in developing equipment that is opening up new sports for para-athletes. Just as Formula 1 technology gave everyday cars safety improvements like disc brakes and rearview mirrors, some of these technologies may eventually be adopted for everyday use.

... and for the greater good

According to the World Bank, 15% of the world population lives with some sort of disability, and this is expected to increase as populations age. Authorities and other organizations are already looking at different ways to make environments more accessible to people with disabilities.

In this broader context, the IEC Systems Committee on Active Assisted Living (SyC AAL) was established to ensure the quality of life of people who are likely to face a number of disabilities as they age. Using a systems-based approach, it aims to find ways to allow the elderly to stay active and independent in their homes by interconnecting technologies used in AAL systems and services. IEC standardization work will help to ensure the safety and interoperability of these diverse technologies.

Some recent innovations

Brainsled – a bobsleigh for quadriplegics – is guided by a helmet device containing electrodes. Based on an electrophysiological monitoring method for recording electrical activity of the brain, wearers control the sleigh through the power of thought. The wireless rechargeable helmet uses special sensors and is compatible with different software systems.

A gadget with vibrating chest straps uses GPS technology to warn visually impaired runners of obstacles ahead. This may eventually be exploited in the hurdles race. It could also be developed for first responders, firefighters, combat soldiers and police. A similar vest has been developed by a US company. It uses the same sensor and laser technology as is found in driverless cars to alert wearers to obstacles ahead.

A glove-like device could soon become part of the training regime for visually impaired swimmers. Sensors which map the swimmer’s upper arms provide feedback to help improve the athlete’s stroke. The device could also be used to perfect a tennis serve or a golf swing by guiding the wearer’s arms along the pre-programmed path of a famous player. The sensors detect the twisting and flexing of the user’s joints. The device tells users if they are hitting the mapped path by vibrating as movements are made.

Ekso Bionics’ exoskeleton – a wearable bionic suit – enables people with weak lower limbs to stand up and walk. As the user’s weight shifts, it activates sensors which start the steps. Battery-powered motors drive the legs, replacing deficient neuromuscular function. This could be used for weight lifting disciplines in sport, as well as for rehabilitation purposes in paralyzed patients.

The work of the IEC covers many different aspects of the electronics and electrotechnology used in equipment for disabled people, and in the systems for developing and testing it. From sensors in wearable smart devices used to track motion and locate objects, to the innovative virtual reality applications employed in the design and fine-tuning stages, IEC standardization activities help the development of equipment to the specific needs of disabled athletes, while considering its safety and reliability.

Sit ski for disabled users Disabled veteran uses a sit ski at Vail Colorado (Photo: Wikipedia)
Chair control is key to the game It's all about chair control (Photo: British Wheelchair Basketball)
Ekso skelleton helps people to walk again Ekso exoskeleton helps disabled people to walk (Photo: Ekso Bionics)