The extraordinary 17 year old who is changing the world of prosthetics and robotics

| 14 October 2013

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Last week I had the privilege to meet an extraordinary young man. Easton LaChappelle hails from a small town called Mancos in Colorado that has population of 1300.

He has made engineers and scientists sit up and take notice of the incredible work he had done on robotic arms.

He is 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 off in 2011 when Easton was just 14 years old. He designed and displayed his first generation a prosthetic robotic arm at the Colorado Science fair.

How he did that was the most remarkable feat. He is self-taught. His family stays an hour away from the closest university, so Easton relied on the Internet 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. He 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 make up 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.

At that science fair he earned himself a 3rd place in tough competition, but it was a 7-year-old girl who really inspired him. This little girl 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 Lachappelle realised that most people in this world can never afford such a luxury to help them lead a normal life. He knew then 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 is touring the universities with at the moment. It may look rudimentary to the eye but this arm is very sophisticated. He has managed to design and build most of the parts himself.

The current generation uses the brain’s electrical impulses to send a message via a band that you wear around your head. It used an EEG wireless brain-sensing device that uses electroencephalography to basically measure you brain activity. By translating the electrical impulses it essentially understands what your brain is telling your arm to do and sends the instructions to the arm via Bluetooth. He uses an Arduino microcontroller to help with the automation using sophisticated controllers and gears. Basic things like a car windscreen wiper motors are used to with help the movement of the arm.

The remarkable part of his second-generation arm is how light it is. It weighs about the same as a human arm, which is 4.5kg, and has almost the same functionality.

He has been featured in dozens of internationals magazines that include Popular Mechanics, How 2.0 and has appeared on countless TV shows around the world. In 2012 he finished second at the International Science Fair.

His incredible work even caught the eye of the White House who invited him to show his work to President Obama who even shook the prosthetic arm.

Easton has also spent the last few months on an internship at NASA working on the Robonaut project.

His efforts are now focused on the 3rd generation arm, which Easton says will weigh half the size of a human arm, and will be able to pick up ten times the weight.

Back in his hometown they are calling him 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!

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