Teen Creates 3D Printed, Brain-Powered Prosthetic Arm

3D Printing & Imaging Robotics Technology
Teen Creates 3D Printed, Brain-Powered Prosthetic Arm


Easton LaChappelle shows off an earlier version of his robotic arm. [via Popular Science]
When he was 14, Easton LaChappelle built a robotic hand because he thought it would be cool. He made the hand out of Lego bricks, fishing wire, surgical tubing for fingers, and five independently-controlled servos. The robo-hand won Easton third place at the Colorado state science fair in 2011, but he was unsatisfied with the robot’s functionality so he set about improving the design.

The second version of the hand grew into an arm and featured a combination of 3D printed parts, dental rubber bands for tendon-like spring action, nylon-coated jeweler’s wire for ligaments, a telemetric Nintendo Power Glove, and a brainwave-activated headset to control the arm’s movement. For muscle power, he made a servo by adding a potentiometer to a DC motor.

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Easton’s inventions created a stir, both because he was so young, and because the devices were flat-out amazing. Oh, and when he started, he knew nothing about electronics or programming. He taught himself. Easton, who lives in the small town of Mancos, Colo. near the Four Corners area, got coverage in Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and MAKE and won a 2nd place ribbon at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the nation’s top science fair.

As impressive as the robotic arm was, Easton realized he wanted to create something that did more than clutch a can of soda. A girl at the Colorado science fair last year gave him the inspiration he needed.

A CAD rendering of Easton’s robotic arm.

The young girl was born without a right arm and wore an $80,000 prosthetic limb. She controlled the arm via a spinal implant. As a maker, Easton was impressed by the technology, but distressed to learn the girl would need new arms as she grew, a tremendous expense for the family.

“That kind of opened my eyes,” said Easton, now 17. “I thought I could turn (my invention) into a prosthetic arm and help a lot of people.”

His mission was to build a robotic arm that was as functional as it was affordable. He thinks he’s done it.

Version 3.0 of the robot uses a Teensy Arduino microcontroller as well as amplifier circuits and Bluetooth receivers. To control the arm, the user flexes a muscle to choose from a menu of movements then performs a series of eye blinks to select pre-loaded gestures such as hand, elbow, or wrist movements. Once a movement is selected, an EEG headset measure brainwaves to control the movement. Total cost for the device? $250.

Except for the gears, motors, and screws, all parts were 3D printed on a Printrbot. Easton counts Printrbot founder Brook Drumm as a key mentor.

After numerous tests on himself and a study of anatomy, Easton discovered the muscles in the foot were the right ones to control the device, specifically curling up his toes.

Easton believes his prosthetic device is the first of its kind and he sees application for bomb defusal and search and rescue as well.

While he wants to use his robo-arm to help the needy, the arm may also be used to help those who need a cold beer. In a roundabout connection, an executive at Heineken asked Easton if his creation could be used to serve beer at bars owned by the Dutch brewing giant.

“It’s an application I never though of,” said the underage inventor.

Easton said yes and asked how many arms Heineken wanted. The answer: 5,000.

“It was definitely surprising,” he said. “It’s a big number, but it’s definitely possible.”

While he figures out how to scale up production and launches a Kickstarter campaign to introduce the arm to the world and help raise funds, he still has high school to contend with. While his school is supportive of his robotics work, he says school sometimes “gets in the way.”

Easton has already been extended a university scholarship and he says a company in Minnesota has offered to pay his rent if he moves there to work for them while he finishes school. But he’s kinda busy. This summer he’s got an internship at NASA where he’ll work on their robonaut project.

“It’s only going to get bigger from here,”  he said.

Contact Easton at njkl44@gmail.com

55 thoughts on “Teen Creates 3D Printed, Brain-Powered Prosthetic Arm

  1. cAlmond says:

    Bravo! Excellent! Good intentions! Your life is a good testimony for others, being poured out for others. Message for Stett: May the Lord bless and prosper your spirit for what it craves for!

  2. Scott Tuttle says:

    I imagine the high cost of a commercial unit comes from testing and certification, etc.

  3. ChrisC says:

    Hi. I’m Chris from Anthromod, and I’d like to mention that I’ve been working with Easton on this current arm. I did the design for the 3D printed parts. I’m really looking forward to what we can accomplish in future.

  4. mushroom glue says:

    This makes quite a good article to balance out yesterday’s discussion about Guns. 3d printing’s a tool, like anything else. You can use it to improve people’s lives, or vice versa. It’s all down to what you want to do. Personally, I think it would be a shame if somebody who wants to make murder weapons with it spoilt it for all the people like this, using it to do good in the world. And all the people who are using them to just make randomly fun stuff, too.

    1. Johann says:

      Mush, you have been taken-in by people with an agenda, to believe that rifles are weapons of murder. Scary looking guns that have recently been in the news are not “murder weapons”. Only 3.7% of all firearm-related deaths occcur because of a rifle – which SCARY looking BLACK rifles are a subset of. So just chill. Think for yourself and realize that the “Assault Weapon” (a government approved misnomer) in my hardened-steel safe is not a threat to you or anyone else that doesn’t try to break down my door. Unless you want to turn into the steel plates I use for target practice. Then all bets are off.

      1. Robert says:

        Yes, because this is truly an agenda-free, rational message from you.

        Even with the oddly veiled threat at the end that seemed to come from nowhere.

        You sound like exactly the sort of person that should be owning guns.

  5. chuck says:

    Great- now they’ll upload the files to Thingiverse and more kids will be armed! Won’t someone think of the children?
    Seriously though this is awesome. This is what making is all about.

  6. David says:

    “Easton IS Excellent!” {NO copyright By Me, “Open Source Use”}

    As for MAKE, the editor’s story’s title line is AGAIN misleading:
    It is NOT brain-powered, it is brain-CONTROLLED.

    Battery hours. Aye, there’s the rub! The small in-unit battery has low life.
    A larger external battery may need a waist belt carrier plus a power cord to plug into a desk or work bench or vehicle’s 12v.

    Plus, even with the $80K model, two units are needed. When the electronic one’s in the shop, there’s nothing like an analog unit, meaning mechanical, literally “hard-wire” for backup. And if the aircraft-grade stainless steel power cable goes out, it can be replaced in the field with fishing rod guides or eye-bolts and some bailing wire or rope. :-)

    Still, “Easton IS Excellent!”

  7. Reece says:

    Brilliant young man with a great future. Shame about the negative comments, or using comments to voice broader, irrelevant issues in this context!

    Well done, Easton.

  8. Lady Donna Marie Royce says:

    GOOD GOING LUV! The world has been waiting for one like you to show up. Just do one thing for me Luv. NEVER FORGET WHY YOU STARTED THIS AND NEVER LET OTHER MONEY MINDED PEOPLE GET IN YOUR WAY! Remember, there are more people here that you NEED to help rather then helping BIG BUSINESS MAKE MORE MONEY!

  9. Kathy says:

    How often does the arm break? The prosthetic arm i have worked with broke down a lot, so it would be nice to see a hardier option. Great job!

  10. Teri Sullivan Kinard says:

    Incredible Keep up with the awesome work!

  11. hwajeong says:

    당신은 매우 멋지다. 앞으로도 노력하길 바란다.

  12. Mike says:

    I’m curious what the requirements are for needing to flex muscles and blink to dictate arm control and menu choices; can these not all be programmed functionality via EEG? EEG -> Bluetooth -> microcontroller sounds simply brilliant.

    With respect to power, I’m curious if using glucose-fueled batteries that gather their energy from the brain/body would help in this instance. Easton (and company) some food for thought if you’ve not seen it:


  13. Wild William says:

    How come he only got a 2nd prize at the science fair? first prize must have been a real bobbydazzler.

  14. George Burns says:

    Careful with this. A device very, very similar to this is heavily patented. By DEKA Research. Just a FYI. Also, as a person with a flail arm due to C5-T1 Nerve root avulsions, it is annoying to see remote controlled devices called “Brain Powered.”

    1. Lady Donna Marie Royce says:

      It might be remote at this time, but I think this young man is on the right track!

  15. live action says:

    When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a
    comment is added I get three emails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thank you!

    1. Stett Holbrook says:

      Sorry about that. Let me see what I can do.

    2. Jake Spurlock says:

      The next time you get a comment, like this one. In the email there will be a link to unsubscribe from the service.



  16. Christine says:

    I find this very interesting since I have one of those $80,000. models that’s been under my bed ever since I got it, over a year ago! I hate it!!!!! I lost my left arm just below the shoulder in Nov 2011. The 80k model is heavy, has to be held on by this HUGE (very unattractive) harness, it makes noise (sounds like a robot & beeps when the elbow locks), and it’s controlled by the small amount of remaining muscle in my arm. It’s completely useless & so unattractive that I am more self-conscious with it on than off. When I got it they told me that I am the only female, above elbow, amputee they have ever fitted. The harness may work for a man but NOT for a woman…it completely flattens out one side of my chest. When I said something about not liking the way it looked it was suggested to “put lace on it”. They were actually very nice people (men) just didn’t understand why it was so important to me. Just something for future prosthetic makers to think about.

  17. David says:

    My condolences; I’m lucky I’m B.E. (Below Elbow). When you did use it, how long did the battery last? Is the battery integral or carried separately on the waist / hips? Occupational Therapists had mechanical units for able-bodied friends and family to strap on to “understand” what is is like. Perhaps you could modify the harness for “normal” people to wear. Then it could be rented out as part of a robot costume. Perhaps you could take the actor to visit the male prosthetic makers and ask them if this is what I’m supposed to look like?!

  18. alarmas says:

    He leido MAKE | Teen Creates 3D Printed, Brain-Powered Prosthetic Arm con mucho interes y me ha parecido interesente ademas de bien redactado. No dejeis de cuidar esta web es buena.

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  20. mona says:

    The robotic arm looks wonderful , but how can it be home-friendly , it will help the disabled for everyday life , or doing household chores for the moms ?

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  22. Sharpen 3D Solution says:

    He is amazing. His story inspires everyone here. Very impressive and bright man he is. His invention also can help everyone who is in need.

  23. Mark Connor says:

    Family Friday is indeed a great family friendly weekend feature and I’m glad to discover it. Easton LaChappelle nicely created a great robotic arm and I really like the overall process of doing it. It’s very innovative and looking forward to learn more regarding such project.

    M. O’Donnell

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

View more articles by Stett Holbrook
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