Easton LaChappelle’s story offers a reminder of the simplest key to success—if you want something badly enough, do the work and find creative ways to achieve your desired outcome.
If traditional systems aren’t providing what you need to accomplish your mission, then break away—break away from your 9-5 job, break away from the agenda that’s set by conventional mind-sets. Easton broke away from the limitations of the public education system and taught himself what he wanted to know.
For LaChappelle, this meant learning how to build a better prosthetic arm.
"I tested a need in the market with a Kickstarter campaign. The need was there, so now I’m working to fill it. That’s my mission," LaChappelle tells Fast Company. "The educational system has boundaries, and you don’t have to work within the boundaries of systems. You can do things to achieve your own outcomes—that’s what I’m doing."
LaChappelle’s mission is to reinvent conventional prostheses. After meeting a young girl with a prosthetic arm and realizing that her parents had to pay $80,000 for it, he knew something had to change. So LaChappelle focused the desire he’s always had to take things apart and put them back together again in a new way.
Living in a small town in Colorado, LaChappelle has had to self-teach himself everything—electronics, coding, how to use a 3-D printer, the list goes on. "This year’s graduating class had 23 people. The nearest RadioShack is an hour away," LaChappelle says. But lack of access and the learning curve hasn’t stopped him. Neither has the fact that’s he’s 17 and has little money to buy products. LaChappelle conducts all of his work in his bedroom. "Just the other day, I heated acetone in a mason jar in my room to make the 3-D-printed hands look more human," he admitted to an audience of thousands in his recent TEDx talk.
To learn how to program the electronics and wireless communication technology, like the XBee, LaChappelle turned to online communities like Instructables, SparkFun, and Hack a Day. To keep costs down, he coordinated with a friend in New York to get two 3-D printers. He takes every opportunity to speak about the robotic hand and inspire others. The connections he’s made through doing so have helped him iterate the project and fulfill his vision of creating an arm that’s lighter than a human’s, but has the same strength.
The first version was a wireless hand that was controlled by a glove. "I found flex sensors and sewed them onto a glove. I made my own custom PCB boards and a custom servo shield. Then, I added XBee modules for wireless communication."
Now, the hand has more functionality than a traditional prosthesis and more strength than a human hand. The next generation can sustain 50 pounds of weight on an individual finger. "The strength of the hand is so great that it’s almost dangerous," LaChappelle says.
The system uses a wireless brain EEG headset that picks up 10 different channels of the brain to move the arm. And, since accessibility is key, the prosthesis will be sold for less than $400. Unlike some of the more advanced options that are currently on the market, amputees don’t need a risky surgery to use the arm, it’s something that can be taken on and off.
The technology is so useful that it’s also caught the attention of NASA, where LaChappelle is now working as an intern on the Robonaut, a robot that will become a working member of the space crew. The Robonaut mocks human movements to perform maintenance tasks and duties that are too dangerous for astronauts.
With self-training and a dedication to a focused mission, LaChappelle has taken what started out as a glove with sensors to a robotic arm that’s now one of the world’s most advanced prostheses with a waiting list of over 300 amputees. The things that LaChappelle has taught himself are proving valuable to NASA, and he’s helping an experienced crew build a robot that will be used in space and in industrial settings worldwide.
In all of the success that LaChappelle has experienced, he says, "I just wanted to make something useful. This is what I’m meant to do."