Dave Henson looks down at his prosthetic legs.
They helped the former British Army officer rebuild his life after his limbs were blown off in Afghanistan in 2011. But they fall short of where he thought prosthetics would be in the 21st century.
“When I thought about the possibility of losing my legs, my assumptions were that prosthetics were quite close to normal legs, and that they functioned almost as a replacement,” he says.
“I gave my soldiers a bit of a pep talk, saying, ‘If you do lose your legs, you’ll just get some fancy robot ones.’
“But when I first got full-size, microprocessor knees put on, it was a bit of a shock to me that they were so different.”
Henson captained Great Britain at last year’s Invictus Games, an international Paralympic-style event launched by Prince Harry, and won gold in a 200 meters running event.
Now, with flip-flops velcroed to his feet, he walks with apparent ease around Tedworth House – the home of UK military wounded charity Help for Heroes.
The prosthetics have helped Henson to compete at an elite level. They cost £35,000 ($54,000) and resemble normal legs, right down to the flesh-colored plastic. However, to Henson, they are no longer state of the art.
“The main issues with prosthetics at the minute are to do with power, control and stability,” says Henson, who participated in athletics and sitting volleyball at the Invictus Games.
“Prosthetic knee joints are only really good for walking in a straight line on level terrain. Things like riding a bike or walking up and down stairs are really where you start to notice.”
To Henson, if stairs are a struggle with such expensive legs, the frustrations must be unbearable for others who rely on prosthetics but can’t afford anything like that sum.
Advancements in 3D printing are bringing down some costs. Henson says a prosthetic hand can be 3D-printed for under £1,000 ($1,500) – compared to a price tag of £100,000 ($150,000) for hands made using older technology.
But Henson, who aims to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics, hopes a bigger revolution in prosthetics is coming – driven by Cybathlon.
Formula One for robotics
Organized by Swiss scientists, the first championships for bionic athletes will bring together teams from across the world.
The inaugural Cybathlon will be held in Zurich in October 2016, and will showcase the newest technologies on offer.
“The main difference between Cybathlon and the Paralympics is the priority of improving daily life,” says organizer Professor Robert Riener.
Riener is an award-winning robotics developer with a strong interest in rehabilitation. Though able-bodied himself, he became increasingly frustrated seeing the struggles of everyday life created by current prosthetic devices, and decided to act.
“It’s not just a competition where we want to get very fast and very strong athletes, it’s a competition where people deal with life challenges,” he says.
“We want to provide robotic technology which helps them better tackle obstacles in daily life.”
Rather than the 100 meters sprint, teams will be timed completing complex daily tasks such as navigating a cobblestone path in a powered wheelchair, or carrying bags of shopping with a powered arm prosthetic.
In the same way that the Olympics and Paralympics are judged on how they affect sports participation, robotics experts will judge the success of Cybathlon on whether it improves quality of life for disabled people.
Dr. Aldo Faisal is leading Imperial College London’s Cybathlon entry, Team Imperial. He would like to see the event make robotic technology more affordable, just as Formula One is ostensibly meant to benefit everyday cars.
“Technology is at the stage where we will be able to see very fast, very effective systems at a very high price point,” he says.
“But if you really take this Formula One idea of the Cybathlon, and try to translate the technology into real life, then what you want to have is some form of cost limitation.”
Martin Colclough, head of sports recovery at Help for Heroes, is keeping a close eye on the event to see how it might improve the experience of disability sport.
“I am sure there will be some good outcomes from it,” he says.
“It’s not so much about the athletic ability of the people using the devices, it’s about how clever and transferable the technology can become.
“It’s how you can take those really smart ideas and put them in a place where a person who thought they couldn’t do something, in our case a particular sport, now can.”
Henson – who started a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College in 2013 – has witnessed the inaccessible, unaffordable nature of grass-root disability sport first-hand.
“If I want to go cycling with my wife, she can go and buy a cheap bike for £100. I have to pay £2,500 for a hand-bike, just to go on a bike ride,” he says.
“That doesn’t seem fair to me, just because I have got this disability.
“Tanni Grey-Thompson (Britain’s 11-time Paralympic wheelchair champion) said that disabled people have as much right to be crap at sport as able-bodied people. She’s totally right.”
‘I just want to play with my friends’
Sport England’s Active People Survey for 2013-14 found that 73% of those with a limiting illness or disability in the UK don’t take part in any sport. That’s a 3% decline in participation since 2011-12, despite the staging of the London Paralympics three years ago.
Research by the English Federation of Disability Sport found that seven in 10 disabled people want to do more sport, yet the main barrier to participation is psychological.
Sophie Elwes is a 26-year-old trainee teacher from London. She was paralyzed in 2011 when she fell off a balcony, and says sport has given her a new lease of life.
However, she is worried the use of the Paralympics in marketing is having a negative impact on disabled people who want to play sport at a low level.
The International Paralympic Committee says its vision is “to inspire and excite the world”, and claims its events contribute “to a better world for all persons with an impairment.”
But in Elwes’ eyes, the Paralympics has beguiled the general public into a sense that everyone aspires to be a Paralympian.
“I don’t want to be a tennis player – I just want to play with my friends,” she tells CNN. “(But) there are really limited opportunities for people who don’t want to take it too seriously.
“It’s damaging how all the publicity about disability sport is about people who are really, really good at it. There’s nothing about people who aren’t.
“Cybathlon … breaks boundaries by putting assistive technologies, their manufacturers and their users to the test, both physically but also by challenging people’s expectations of physical limitation.
“It seems to be an important and fundamental step.”