maxon Story

Walking in the name of science

Despite his paraplegia, Werner Witschi often walks for miles. What drives this Swiss 64-year-old is the aim of making exoskeletons more practical for daily use by disabled people. That’s why Werner Witschi is once again going to be a pilot at ETH Zürich’s CYBATHLON 2024. With world-first technology, if all goes as planned.


A loose roof tile, a moment’s carelessness, one wrong step – and Werner Witschi’s life as he knew it smashed to pieces on the ground. Ten years ago, he fell backward from a roof while working. That was Werner Witschi’s last step on his own legs; today he sits in a wheelchair. “But I’m still alive!” he says thankfully. “And back then I was nearer to death than to life.” The 64-year-old is paralyzed from the chest down, but has relatively high stability in his upper body. “That helps me when I’m doing testing and training on exoskeletons and wheelchairs for the two ‘enhanced’ teams.” Werner Witschi, you see, is a kind of elite athlete, dedicated to helping research. How did that come about?

From paraplegic to long-distance walker 

Nine years ago – just a short time after his devastating fall – Werner Witschi met the VariLeg team at the Swiss Handicap trade fair in Lucerne. The team was already working on making exoskeletons more practical for paralyzed people to use in daily life. They were looking for what they called “pilots”: people who could contribute their experience of paralysis to tests with exoskeletons and wheelchairs. Werner, being a guy who is very open to new things, jumped at the idea – even though the tests meant he had to travel long distances from his home in Bern to the training site near Zürich. The team, for their part, are thrilled by his lust for life: “Werner never gave up or lost heart. A lot of people in wheelchairs don’t like so much public exposure, or are done with pedestrian life,” says team leader Silvia Rohner. “But Werner even became a well-connected ambassador for our teams.”

So, Werner Witschi is the one “with the confidence to venture out,” as he puts it. He keeps on walking for miles, now in the name of science with the exoskeleton, attracting media coverage as he ascends steep Swiss mountains like Pilatus or the Stanserhorn. He also competes as a pilot and substitute pilot at the CYBATHLON event, which takes place every four years, the next one being in 2024.


New hope for walking and driving 

He’s showing everyone that yes, it can be done! Nevertheless, much work still needs to be done to make the assistance systems more practical. “The idea of the CYBATHLON is to drive progress for people with disabilities. It spurs people to excel, and promotes networking between researchers and those in need of assistance.” However, he says it calls for exercises and movements that he wouldn’t exactly do in real life. Such as using the exoskeleton to get up from a low sofa. “Even for that, you need to be a top athlete,” he observes. “In everyday life, you buy a high couch instead so that you don’t need to do it.”

Alongside the competitive aspect inherent in the CYBATHLON, the researchers focus intensively on real problems that life with a disability brings. Such as restricted mobility. “When I plan an outing somewhere, it always depends on how I can get around the place with the wheelchair,” explains Werner Witschi. “We are now working on a solution.” Specifically, the VariLeg team is working on a world’s first: the “enhanced Hybrid” project, in which the advantages of a wheelchair are combined with those of an exoskeleton. Like something out a science fiction film, this new “Transformer” (as the device has been affectionately dubbed) can adapt to the circumstances of the trip. If stretches of ground have to be covered, Werner Witschi travels in the wheelchair. If obstacles are encountered, like some steps, the chair transforms into the exoskeleton in which the passenger can stand up and walk. After that, he seamlessly goes back to rolling along in the chair. A further advantage, according to the team leader, is that “most exoskeletons work only with crutches, which prevent any other use of the hands. We would like to enable walking without crutches, by automating the crutches.”

Currently the prototype is still too heavy, weighing around 70 kilograms (154 pounds). “This kind of device has ten drive units from maxon. They are reliable, robust, very powerful, and quiet; they are the best motors that can be found on the market,” says Silvia Rohner. “But we are hoping that in the future, the technologies will become smaller and more compact in general.” If all goes well, this hybrid solution will prove itself in 2024 at the CYBATHLON. Either way, Werner Witschi is sure of one thing: “The development process is moving ahead! And I’m happy for everyone whose daily life gets a little bit easier as a result!”

Werner Witschi, pilot and wheelchair user

You hardly feel the walking itself anymore in the exoskeleton. You’re strapped into it and you’re standing on the ground, so it takes the weight off you. But it has to be light enough for my wife to be able to lift it into the car.”

The enhanced teams

In December 2015, staff and students at the Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences (OST) formed the original enhanced team together with Florian Hauser as their first pilot. Their objective was to develop a racing wheelchair for CYBATHLON 2016. After the team won the gold medal in the wheelchair discipline, they founded an additional team for the exoskeleton discipline in 2018. Since then, the two teams, Robility enhanced and VariLeg enhanced, have been a permanent feature of all major CYBATHLON events. Ideas for solving new challenges are usually worked out by students in various disciplines. If the solutions pass testing, they are integrated into the mobility aids by OST staff.

The Engagement from maxon 

maxon products are used anywhere particularly high requirements must be met, such as the daily life of people with disabilities. maxon’s motors, gearheads, and controllers have been used for years in prostheses, exoskeletons, and wheelchairs. So that progress can be made in demanding markets such as this, the company invests a large part of its turnover in research and development. maxon has supported the CYBATHLON from day one. The company didn’t hesitate to get on board for the third edition of the event – this time as a Gold partner. maxon strongly believes that the quality of life of many people can be improved sustainably by new technological solutions.


[ FOTOCREDITS: © ETH Zürich / Alessandro Della Bella ]


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