The international Cybathlon competition, in which a Politecnico team also participates, involves people with disabilities competing over everyday activities using state-of-the-art "assistive technologies" . It takes place every four years and is organised by ETH Zurich. The Polimi team participates in the FES-bike (Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike) discipline, in which a rider with complete paraplegia competes using a three-wheeled wheelchair (technically called a ‘passive trike’) activated via an electrical muscle stimulator capable of sending coordinated impulses through surface electrodes that induce the contraction of paralysed muscles. The working group, consisting of 6-10 students, deals with optimising the trike’s mechanics and seating.
The next edition of the tournament will be held in 2024. In the meantime, however, there are also other FES-bike competitions, such as the one held last year in Lyon: "In Lyon we covered 100 metres in 39 seconds and 500 metres in 4 minutes 18 seconds. We ranked 4th out of seven", comments Professor Emilia Ambrosini from the Department of Electronics, Information Science and Bioengineering, coach of the team. "In 2020, on the other hand, we covered 860 metres in eight minutes and placed 7th out of nine. It’s no brilliant placing, of course, but we had done very little training".
It's not just the podium that counts, as the students in the team tell us: it's also being confronted with an experience like this, which is enriching both from an academic and a human perspective. "It was the most exciting academic experience ever", said Federico Cavallini, student in the Biomedical Engineering Laurea Magistrale programme. "Realising that one's work - albeit a small part of a much bigger project - really helps people and patients in need was what actually left a mark on me and made me passionate about this world. And in the end, I can't hide the satisfaction of seeing the riders, people with paraplegia, pedalling and moving around independently with the trike I worked on with my group".
Although it is a learning experience, the emotional aspect of feeling useful for a person in need is a central aspect of Cybathlon: "Interfacing directly with the patients and understanding their needs helped me broaden the way I approached the problem", noted Rachele Mariotti, also a student in the Biomedical Engineering Laurea Magistrale programme. "I think that such projects are very enriching for the students and their journey. And the fact that I involved students from different engineering backgrounds - I was in a team with two Mechanical Engineering students - taught me how to deal with people from different backgrounds and how to understand and make each one’s strengths stand out". Participating in these competitions is also a testing ground, some sort of possible prospective real work: "I decided to participate in the competition in Lyon to see the theoretical lessons learnt during the academic course put into practice. I could experience first-hand the complexity that the development of an FES-bike requires. It was thus stimulating from a problem solving point of view, thanks to a more practical approach to the hardware and software solutions one comes into contact with during one's academic training".