Teenage Engineering Prodigy Visits UKZN
Seventeen-year-old engineering whizz Easton LaChapelle of Denver, Colorado recently visited UKZN to share his experiences in the design and development of a prosthetic arm.
Lachapelle was hosted by Dr Riaan Stopforth, Head of UKZN’s Mechatronics and Robotics Research Group (MR2G) Bio-Engineering Unit, in conjunction with the South African Institution of Electrical Engineering (SAIEE).
Addressing students, staff, members of industry and the media, Easton explained how the idea for the robotic arm stemmed from a childhood fantasy. ‘I thought, how cool would it be to put on a suit and have super human strength,’ he said. From this fantasy, Easton got the idea to develop a robotic arm with a wireless control glove. Making use of the internet, CAD software, 3D printing and composite materials he was able to develop his first generation model.
He entered his creation into a Colorado science fair where he met a seven-year-old amputee with a prosthetic arm. After speaking to the young girl’s parents he discovered that not only was the prosthetic expensive (about R800 000) but it had limited mobility and would need to be refitted several times during her life.
In what he describes as his ‘Aha! moment’, Easton realised that his passion project could save and change lives.
With a new found determination, Easton then 15 years old began developing a second generation model of his robotic arm. The new model costs around R5 000 to produce and boasts improved weight, mobility and human similarity.
Incorporating the mechanical structure with electronics and artificial intelligence, it is able to “think” for itself and performs tasks depending on the sensory system incorporated in the hand. The control system uses a wireless brain wave sensor, unlike many of today’s advanced prosthetics which are controlled by neural implants that require spinal surgery.
Easton demonstrated how the arm worked by bending the elbow to extend the hand. It will only shake another person’s hand if it detects that the other person has gripped the hand.
Easton shared his plans to aid a fellow class mate who was recently paralysed from the waist down. He plans to develop a complete exoskeleton robotic system that will enable the youngster to walk across the stage for their high school graduation.
He is currently working on a third generation robotic hand system that is more light-weight (2.5 kg) and able to pick up heavy objects (up to 70 kg), by means of improving the efficiency of the actuators within the system.
Easton is also looking for a university in the United States which will allow him to explore his diverse interest in Electrical, Computer and Mechanical Engineering as well as Neuroscience and Business.
After the presentation, Easton joined the MR2G Bio-Engineering Unit members in the lab where they compared and discussed the Unit’s own prosthetic arm and hand. UKZN Mechanical Engineering students: Mr Drew van der Riet, Mr Preyen Perumall, Mr Simangaliso Ngema and Mr Zaheer Dimala are currently developing a prosthetic for a man who lost a limb when he was struck by lightning. Their design was showcased at the recent Mechanical Engineering Open Day.
Easton spoke about the lack of support he received for daring to defy convention and test the system. He then issued a challenge to the audience: ‘I challenge you to redefine those systems and redefine those boundaries for everything and to be curious.’
- Sally Frost