In 2014 I had the privilege to meet an extraordinary young man. Easton LaChappelle hails from a small town called Mancos in Colorado that has a population of 1300. He has made engineers and scientists sit up and take notice of the incredible work he has done on robotic arms. He was in the country at the invitation of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers to give some guest lectures at universities in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
It all started in 2011, when Easton was just 14 years old and had designed his first robotic arm. How Easton achieved this is remarkable given that he is self-taught. At the time of his creation of the arm, his family stayed an hour away from the closest university, so he relied on internet solutions to learn about robotics and 3D printing. He used websites like Instructables, which specialise in user-created and uploaded do-it-yourself projects, to learn how to make some of the parts.
Easton also used many other open source websites that have designs that anyone can use to aid in projects and research. He then used things like Lego blocks and parts of his gaming consoles to create his first robotic arm prototype. Because he lived so far away from a city he had no access to a 3D printer so he managed to find someone in New York who was willing to print out the parts and send them to Colorado. He even used acetone on the plastic arms to try and get as close as possible to a human skin feeling.
Easton’s design eventually won him second place at the International Science Fair in 2012. It was at this fair that he encountered a 7-year-old girl who was wearing an upper-limb prosthesis that cost in the region of $80,000. She would need three such prostheses in her lifetime as she grew. At that point Easton realised that most people in this world can never afford such a luxury to help them lead a normal life. It was then that he knew that what he had designed for under $400 could surely be used to make a difference to hundreds of thousands around the world.
He set out working on his second prototype, the same one he was touring universities with when I met him. It might have looked rudimentary to the eye but this arm was very sophisticated. He managed to design and build most of the parts himself.
The second prototype used the brain’s electrical impulses to send a message via a band worn around the head, as well as an EEG wireless brain-sensing device that used electroencephalography to measure brain activity. By translating the electrical impulses it could essentially understand what your brain was telling your arm to do and send the instructions to the arm via Bluetooth. Easton used an Arduino microcontroller to help with the automation using sophisticated controllers and gears. Basic things like a car windscreen wiper motors were used to help with the movement of the arm.
The remarkable part of Easton’s second-generation arm was how light it is. It weighed about the same as a human arm, which is 4.5kg, and had almost the same functionality.
Easton was featured in dozens of international magazines that include Popular Mechanics and appeared on countless TV shows around the world. His incredible work even caught the eye of the White House, and he was to show his work to President Obama who even shook the prosthetic arm. Easton has also interned at NASA where he worked on the Robonaut project.
After giving a TEDTalk in 2013, Easton caught the attention of well-known life coach Tony Robbins, who partnered with Easton to form Unlimited Tomorrow, the company of which Easton is the CEO. In 2017, the first of the company’s robotic arms was put on Momo, a 10-year-old girl who was born without a right forearm and hand.
Back in his hometown people are calling Easton the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They could be right if his current inventions are anything to go by. This young man is certainly one to watch in the future!