A Colorado teenager has used 3D printing to create a robotic prosthetic arm that costs less than $500 and is fully functional. At Denver's TedxMileHigh, Easton LaChappelle, 17, demonstrated his robotic arm, and how he constructed it to keep the cost low.
LaChappelle said he came up with the idea for a robotic arm when he was 14, then turned to the Internet to teach himself the engineering and programming skills needed to execute it. When the costs involved in making a full-size arm became too great, LaChappelle looked into 3D printing.
“So, in the end, I built this robotic arm up to the shoulder, which was extremely strong,” LaChappelle said. “It could toss balls to you, it could shake your hand, it could pretty much do anything a human could if you program it correctly."
LaChappelle entered his robotic arm in the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair, where he met a 7-year-old girl with a prosthetic arm that cost $80,000. LaChappelle decided to add a control system to the robotic arm and direct his fun project toward helping people.
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Instead of neural sensors implanted in a spinal cord, LaChappelle wanted a control system that was external so it could be taken on and off. LaChappelle’s prosthetic arm is controlled with an electroencephalographic headband, which can read about 10 different channels of the brain and communicate with the arm wirelessly via Bluetooth technology.
LaChappelle said 3D printing was essential not only in building custom gears and prototypes at comparatively low cost but also in allowing him to construct a prosthetic arm that looks relatively organic. LaChappelle used acetone vapor on the 3D-printed hand to give it a clean, glossy finish.
LaChappelle’s work with the 3D-printed prosthetic arm landed him a job working at NASA on the Robonaut team. He's now engaged in producing a set of robotic legs for a classmate who can’t walk.
Advances in 3D printing technology are making huge waves for people with disabilities. At a recent Wearable Technology Conference in New York, a hat designed to help a person with hearing loss won recognition as the best in show, while 3D printing was also used to produce a prosthetic foot for a duck. In Europe, a set of robotic legs became the first robotic apparatus approved as a medical device there.