For Easton LaChappelle, a 19-year-old from Colorado in the United States (U.S.), the difficulty with robotics has never been the technology itself - something he says he managed to master in a matter of months from his bedroom in his parent’s house - but the cost.
The technology used by most robotic arms and hands on the market - and many more of those in development - typically comes with large overheads.
In the last five years, though, learning almost exclusively online in forums and emails, LaChappelle has managed to synthesize a series of robotic hands that could change industries and lives - and most of which cost just a few hundred dollars.
While other developments in countries like Austria and Argentina have pushed the boundaries of prosthetic offerings, helping those missing limbs to start to regain use of them with robotics, LaChappelle has done so using 3D printing.
And he’s made one that he says can read your mind. It’s called Anthromod.
“This reads right about 10 channels of the brain, so it kind of works kind of like a muscle sensor in that it picks up small electric discharges and turns that into something you can actually read within software, and then we actually track patterns and try and convert that into movement. So with this I‘m actually able to change grips, grip patterns, based on facial gestures, and then use the raw actual brainwaves and focus to actually close the hand or open the clamp or hand,” he told Reuters Television.
One of the most important aspects of the Anthromod design is the way in which it’s controlled by the software, which LaChappelle says is different from the types of control that exist in other robotic platforms.
While it’s the hand itself that moves, as more advanced controls are created it’s the software that’s doing the heavy lifting, using algorithms that make the arm easier to use.
“A good example is we actually had an amputee use the wireless brainwave headset to control a hand, and he was able to fluently control the robotic hand in right around about 10 minutes, so the learning curve is hardly a learning curve any more,” he said.
The arms themselves might not look polished and ready for the shop floor - but LaChappelle sees them as cutting edge.
His robotic arms are all prototypes, each fulfilling a different need according to their design, with some using a wireless brainwave headset, designed more for prosthetic use. Another of his tele-robotic controlled hands was created with dangerous environments in mind, where human-like robots could be sent to allow people to monitor situations and intervene from afar.
“I really tried to make this as human-like as possible - this is probably about my fifth generation of the full robotic arm, and this is controlled using a full tele-robotic system, so there’s actually a glove that you wear that tracks your hand movements, accelerometers to track your wrist and elbow, and then an IMU sensor as well to track your bicep rotation as well as your shoulder movement, and that gets all translated wirelessly to the robotic arm where it will copy what you do,” he said.
One of the most impressive aspects of the arm is not the hardware itself, or even the software that controls it - but the fact that it can be 3D printed for a fraction of the cost of modern prosthetics.
This allows him to make complex internal structures to the designs which would otherwise be impossible, using not just any 3D printer, but precisely the kind many expect people to have at home in the near future.
“So 3D printing allows you to create something that’s human-like, something that’s extremely customized, again for a very low cost, which for certain applications such as prosthetics, is a really big part of it,” he told Reuters.
“The full robotic arm is actually open source, and so people are now actually able to take this, reproduce it, and adapt it for different situations, applications, and really see what you can do with it,” he added.
The Anthromod itself cost only about 600 dollars to make, LaChappelle said.
His work is documented in the videos he made at home, showing his handiwork - all part of his effort at making the invention open source - which means anyone can take his technology and customize and build on it.
The idea, he said, is not to create something that can solve problems for those with prostheses and other needs for robotic arms like the ones he’s invented - but rather to create a platform that people around the world can use to customize their own versions of to suit their needs.
“A big reason we designed this on the consumer level is because we made this open source, we want someone that has a 3D printer, or very little printing experience, to be able to replicate this, to be able to use this for new applications, to be able to adapt it into new situations, so it’s really exciting to see what people will start doing with something like this,” he said.
“For the actual arm, we designed everything to be modular, meaning all the joints can actually interchange, and there’s a universal bolt pattern. So you can now create something human-like, or you can create a big 20 degree freedom arm for complex filming or even low cost automations. So we really want to make a robotics platform, not so much just a robotics hand from this,” he added.
LaChappelle hopes his efforts will contribute to developments in bomb defusal robots, heavy equipment and heavy industrial automation robotic arms, as well as exoskeletons.