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 2nd 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. In partnership with iQ by Intel, 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 1 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 dollars. 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.
To read about what Easton thinks the future of prostheses will look like and what he’s working on next, here on iQ by Intel.
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