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EPFL team to excel at this weekend’s Cybathlon

Wearing an improved exoskeleton designed by EPFL scientists, Swiss paraplegic athlete Silke Pan is to represent EPFL at the 2nd edition of the Cybathlon, an international cybernetics race, which will be organised by the ETH Zurich this weekend. Due to the coronavirus, an online version of the exoskeleton race will be broadcast on Saturday, 14 November at at 15:00.

Handbike champion Silke Pan is all set to compete against nine athletes from five countries (United States, Russia, Korea, India and France). The former acrobat will use the TWIICE exoskeleton especially designed for her by EPFL scientists. She will race through a 40-meter-long circuit that includes seven types of obstacles like stairs, inclined slopes, rough terrain and a slalom around tables. The winner will be determined based on three rounds of the race.

“When the team first asked me to participate in the Cybathlon, I accepted under one condition, that we would take the gold medal. But we ranked 4th instead,” tells Pan of her first race with TWIICE back in 2016. “This year's our chance to rise up to the challenge and go for gold.”

A professional athlete, Pan is more than acquainted with intense competition. Throughout the year, she trains daily on the hand-bike in preparation for various regional and international competitions, like Europe's Cup, the World Cup, the World Championships and the Paralympics, that are planned to resume in 2021. For the past month and a half, Pan and the EPFL TWIICE team have been training one afternoon per week at EPFL's Lausanne campus in preparation for the race.

 “TWIICE is a lower limb exoskeleton developed by the EPFL research group REHAssist. It consists of actuated segments at the hip and knee joints that are rigidly interfaced with the thighs and the tibiae. A smart controller coordinates these segments to move according to desired gait trajectories that enable a person with spinal cord injury, like Silke, to walk” explains Mohamed Bouri, group leader of REHAssist.

During the race, Pan will be followed by 2 scientists to ensure her safety.

 “Since the beginning of the training sessions, the exoskeleton has been in constant improvement thanks to Silke's input and her drive to win,” explains Tristan Vouga, EPFL Cybathlon team leader and co-inventor of the exoskeleton TWIICE. “We gained 4 minutes in the last month and 45 seconds during the last training session alone. Our latest upgrade consists of a more flexible foot that can conform to the terrain. More generally, the latest version of the exoskeleton is much more ergonomic and provides more autonomy for its pilot, so Silke for instance can now go directly from her wheelchair into the exoskeleton by herself.”

The Cybathlon is a Swiss-organised competition that happens every 4 years to promote technologies that assist people with impairments in their daily activities.

Click here to read the EPFL press release and discover more details.