Easton LaChappelle is a self-taught robotics wunderkind. At the age of 14, he built his first robotic hand out of LEGO bricks and recently won second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. His 3D-printed robotic prosthetic arm uses existing tech – the rather dated Nintendo Power Glove – combined with commercially available brainwave monitoring devices to provide a high degree of movement and control without the huge price tag of conventional robotic prostheses. We spoke with Easton about his creation and his plans to develop better devices for the disabled.
What sparked your initial interest in robotics and prostheses?
When I was younger I always used to take apart everything, and I also used to play with LEGOs a lot. When I was 14 I got my first microcontroller, a small computer control board, and my creations really started to take off.
My original idea was to create a robotic hand that was controlled by a wireless control glove. The inspiration came from my meeting last year with a seven-year-old girl who has a prosthetic limb from her elbow to fingertip. Limited to only one motion, open/close, and one sensor, she can’t do much with it. I started talking to her parents and realized this limited piece of tech cost more than $80,000. That is a lot of money! She'll probably need about two or three prosthetic limbs in her lifetime because she is still growing; her family will need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars! This was the "ah-ha" moment for me.
Explain how your latest creation works.
It is a full robotic arm up to the shoulder that has the same weight, strength, and functionality of a human arm. It is controlled using a brainwave headset and a muscle sensor on the foot. The headset is also capable of detecting blinking and facial expressions. The user combines all three of these to create inputs for the arm.
When the user flexes their foot muscle, the arm enters into a movement selection stage where patterns of blinking or facial expressions correspond to an individual movement of the arm. The user then unflexes their foot muscle and that movement is selected. The raw brainwaves take over to actuate that motion based off the user’s focus. For example, the harder they focus on a glass of water, the harder the hand grasps it.
What potential do you think 3D printing holds for the health industry?
Tremendous amounts! Not only for reconstructing our physical bodies, but for creating micro-beings that could potentially act as a secondary immune system. The ideas and soon-to-be-realities are endless! I am actually working on a side project where I am making an exoskeleton around your legs that will walk for you. My friend was in an accident, and I really want to give him that part of life back.
What will future prostheses look like? More realistic, or exotic, multi-functional tools?
Having an amputation takes a lot out you mentally and physically, so a lot of amputees want something that looks and functions like their old arm. A lot of amputees say that even cutting edge prosthetic arms are too heavy and bulky, and I am solving for that. The current arm I made compares to human strength and I am working on a newer hand that has twice the strength.
What was it like meeting the president at the White House?
That was an amazing experience! I never thought something I made in my bedroom would be shaking hands with the president!
What’s next? What are your goals?
I want to make my prosthesis even more affordable, human-like, and compact. I'm working on a hand right now that's completely self contained (all motors and electronics within the palm) and it's stronger than any of the hands I made in the past. My arms don't only apply to prosthetics, but any kind of disabled person can use it as an aid. I am hooking the arm up to an MS patient soon so she can feed herself and have that part of [her] life back. I am also working with the robonaut team over the summer at Johnson Space Center to build the next generation of tele-robotics. Even the military could use my arm for bomb defusal. Instead of having a soldier learn a new claw system, they put on a glove and it would be as if they were out there in person.