Durban - A teenager from Colorado in the US is making biomedical and tele-robotics history. This week, the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers invited Easton LaChappelle, 17, to talk in Durban about how, with limited resources and knowledge, he came to develop a prosthetic arm that surpasses the capabilities of any other on the market.
Veer Ramnarin, the chairman of the institute, said: “Engineers are always striving to do more with less, and that is exactly what Easton has done.”
At 14 he started working with robotics: “I thought it would be cool to control a robotic hand with your own hand,” said Easton. He used the internet to teach himself.
For his first hand he used lego, a normal glove and sensors he bought online. It was “just for fun” and he was amazed that it worked.
What made his robotic hand different was that Easton added a feedback system that told the wearer what the robotic arm was “feeling”.
Not stopping there, he taught himself CAD, a design program, and designed his second-generation hand.
However, all the parts he designed were organic and there was no way of buying them.
At the time 3D printing technology was developing. This allows the user to print out plastic 3D objects that he has designed.
Using a 3D printer he bought himself, he made the parts he needed for the second-generation arm.
When he took this to a science fair, he met a seven-year-old girl who had a prosthetic arm that had cost her parents $80 000 (R798 000) but had limited functionality.
Easton could create a more affordable and functional prosthetic limb that would help thousands of people.
He immediately went to work on the third generation, but needed to find a way for the wearer to control the limb without wearing a separate glove.
What he did next, some may think, was science fiction, but Easton describes it as “actually very simple”.
He created headgear that measured brainwaves by placing a sensor on the forehead and one on the ear lobe and used Bluetooth technology. He then wrote algorithms into it so that it would become “smart” and learn as the wearer learnt. After wearing it for only a few hours, the wearer would be able to seamlessly control the prosthetic arm.
He was featured in Popular Science magazine and soon afterwards received a call from Nasa asking what he was doing for the summer. He worked for them for a few months on their Robonaut project.
“But after that, I knew that I never wanted to work for Nasa. They gave me a desk job and I felt that I wasted three months that could have been spent on my project.”
Easton has enjoyed his first time in South Africa, “I went bungee jumping yesterday and shark cage diving but I really am anxious now to get back to work.” - The Mercury