Kids Make The Darndest Things: Easton LaChappelle’s Robotic Arm

Say hello to what kids can do with 3D printing, open source hardware, and YouTube.

Easton LaChapelle is now a Junior in high school and he’s already got some impressive credits to his name. His first robotic hand, controlled remotely by a glove with sensors sewn into it, won him 3rd place in the Colorado state science fair as a freshman, which reserved him a seat at the national fair in Los Angeles as an observer. This also won him some nice coverage in Popular Mechanics.

While developing the project, Easton got in touch with Jeremy Blum, whose YouTube videos have over 4 million views. Jeremy helped clear up some of the code for the control glove to communicate wirelessly with the hand. To do this on the cheap, Easton bought an old Nintendo Power Glove off the Internet and raided it for sensors. Watch this video of Easton testing the hand’s strength in this video.

As we all know, award-winning robotic hands grow up to become sweet, award-winning robotic arms. After Easton’s success with his first hand, he looked for ways to improve it. The first step was to fabricate the hand how he wanted it. 3D printing services in the area quoted him $500 to deliver on his designs, which was pretty far outside his high school budget.

Back to Jeremy Blum. Full disclosure: Jeremy is a current MakerBot employee and a longtime enthusiast of open source collaboration and 3D printing. He was in college at the time with plenty of access to a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic. He took Easton’s awesome designs and advised him on how to tweak things for a MakerBot. Then Jeremy made all the pieces on the Thing-O-Matic and shipped them to Easton in Colorado. He also advised Easton on how to convert a couple DC motors on the robotic arm to servos by adding potentiometers. That way they don’t just continue spinning forever, but stop when parts of the arm have hit the right position.

Well here’s the coolest part. This arm placed in the Second Award category for Engineering at the 2012 Intel International Science Fair, i.e. second in the world. Whoa. Easton’s story is timeless – someone trying to make a machine just for the fun of it, and finding every opportunity to do it for less money. But it’s also a perfectly modern one. He was in middle school when he discovered the resources online to take his simple fascination into reality. He was able to connect with someone across the country in no time and have his designs shipped relatively cheaply.

Photo courtesy of Hacked Gadgets

What if he had had a MakerBot of his own from the beginning? How much sooner would Easton have been testing ideas and making waves in huge competitions?

Easton lists Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and other machines, as a big inspiration. He told me on the phone that Kamen is working on a prosthetic limb, too, but that he plans to make a better one. We think he probably will.