At 14 years old and with no engineering background, Easton LaChappelle, now a senior at Mancos High School, decided to build a wireless robotic hand.
“When I was little I used to take apart everything I got. I always wanted to figure out why things worked and how they worked and how they all worked together in such a perfect way,” LaChappelle told O&P Business News. “I played with Legos a lot and always liked messing around with electronics, hooking up little motors to Lego creations I made to make things move. Then I thought, how cool would it be to put on a glove and when you move your hand a robotic hand would mimic your movement?”
Using the Internet as his learning tool, LaChappelle pieced together a robotic hand made out of electrical tape, Legos, styrofoam blocks, electrical tubing for the fingers and fishing tackle for tendons to connect the motors, while he used a standard stretchy work glove with sensors sewn into it to control the hand. Afterward, he built a full robotic arm that could be controlled by the glove by pressing different buttons.
LaChappelle entered his device in the state science fair in Fort Collins, Colo. There he met a young girl who had a prosthetic limb from the elbow to the fingertip with one motion and one sensor. When he found out that the limb cost nearly $80,000, LaChappelle knew he wanted to change that.
“At first, [building the hand and arm] was just for fun. I just wanted to build something cool and that’s what I did in my free time. But [meeting that girl] was the ‘ah-ha’ moment for me. That I could take what I was doing and transfer it directly to prosthetics,” he said. “The platform was already there, so that became my goal. That was the moment that triggered everything, that got me helping people with what I’m already doing.”
Since its inception, LaChappelle has built five prototypes of his prosthetic hand and is on the third generation of the arm, each one lighter and more functional than the last. The materials used for the prosthetic hand have changed from Legos and electrical tape to custom gears and gear boxes printed from his 3-D printer. The glove has evolved from a stretchy work glove with sensors to a 1989 Nintendo power glove with reconfigured sensors.
“The final product is a full arm from the finger tip to the shoulder, which has the same functionality as a human arm and almost the same degrees of freedom. It is controlled using the brain and a single EMG sensor placed on the foot,” LaChappelle said. “The whole cost is around $400. You could buy an iPhone that is more expensive than that.”
Currently, LaChappelle is working on the sixth generation of the hand, which is completely self contained and three times stronger than any of the hands he has built.
“It has all the motors in the palm, it is light as can be and it also has some more functionality than some of the other hands,” he said. “It is a lot more human like and it opens up a lot of applications for prosthetics from the elbow to the fingertip. I originally had all the motors in the forearm, but that limited the product to the upper arm prosthetics, so I had a kind of selective market. Now, this would work perfectly for someone who is missing their arm from the mid-forearm to the hand.”
While LaChappelle is currently working on the next generation of the prosthetic hand, he already has ideas for his next project, which is also aimed to help individuals with disabilities.
“There is a guy in my class who is paralyzed from the waist down and there is a 2% chance he will walk again. I want to build a pair of exoskeleton legs that will go around his legs and walk for him,” LaChappelle said. “There are a lot of projects that could come from that, for patients with multiple sclerosis and stroke victims. Something that would give them that part of their life back.”
For students interested in following a similar career path, LaChappelle advises proceeding in the way that works best for them, regardless of what the education system says.
“Within the education system, so far, I found out there are a lot of boundaries that really restrict students from doing exactly what they want,” he said. “Students should get out of those boundaries, find their niche as early on as possible and use creativity as much as they can. I owe everything to my creativity. It sparks the interest and it is what keeps the interest going indefinitely.”
Although LaChappelle is still in high school, he received the opportunity to intern at NASA on the Robonaut project where he works with telerobotics systems and mechanical designs. Unlike many students, LaChappelle did not need to apply. The internship opportunity occurred after he was featured in Popular Science magazine.
“I got a call from the Robonaut team and they all sat down and read over my work. From there I was asked what I was doing over the summer,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was the youngest [intern] on site because all the other interns are well into college.”
But robotics is not the only subject he is interested in. In his spare time, LaChappelle likes to mountain bike and ski. However, not even his hobbies can escape his passion. Last summer he put an 80cc motor on his bike to get around town a little easier.
Although his time in high school is coming to a close, LaChappelle is not eager to jump into college just yet.
“I probably won’t go to college immediately,” LaChappelle said. “The business is going well and I want to focus on it now since everything is moving so fast. It would be extremely hard to keep both college and working on the hand afloat.”
Whichever path he chooses, LaChappelle knows he will have the support of his family, who enjoy seeing his work on his newest inventions. — by Casey Murphy