A startup ambitiously named Unlimited Tomorrow is designing prosthetic arms made with dozens of sensors, an Arm M4 processor and rigid skin produced on a 3D printer.
About 100 of the designs are in active testing to wirelessly detect their users’ patterns of movement from 64 data streams in order to perfect the design.
The 12-person company’s young founder, Easton LaChappelle, is already well-known on the TED talk circuit as the teenager who grew up in a small, boring Colorado town and would run home from school to work on his robotics ideas.
“I love turning ideas into reality and learning something new, and then using ideas to help people,” he said in an interview with FierceElectronics.
“There are about 40 million amputees worldwide and 2 million in the U.S. We want to democratize the medical industry. It’s really backward. We want something low cost and low risk,” he said.
LaChappelle’s mission started in earnest when he entered a science fair at age 17 with an early prosthetic device and then met a young girl with a prosthetic arm that had cost $80,000. “They can cost $30,000 to $80,000 and we want to make ours for $5,000,” he said.
At CES 2020, he appeared at a booth alongside Particle, an IoT innovations company with about 140 employees. Particle makes the small board installed in the arm that relies on the Arm M4 chip and has cellular and Bluetooth connectivity. A lithium polymer battery like those used by Tesla is also inside.
With Particle’s System on Module board and software, called B series, Unlimited Tomorrow can do wireless firmware updates on a single prosthetic device or all of them at once. In addition, the company will be able to use data analytics to detect problems and find ways to improve the design.
The sensors that are being perfected for the arm are proprietary enhanced EMG (electromyography) sensors for evaluating and recording the electrical activity of an amputee’s arm just below the elbow. There will be from six to 64 of the sensors around the cuff of the prosthetic that attaches to a person’s limb.
Patents for the enhanced EMGs have been filed, but LaChappelle said he couldn’t discuss much about how the devices have been enhanced. “We’ve re-created an enhanced EMG sensor which is non-electrode based for clean data. When people sweat, a normal EMG doesn’t work, and EMGs are classically noisy anyway, which is why we’re investing in this work.”
LaChappelle realizes how complex a new technology product can be, not only for solving technical obstacles, but also for raising money. He credits business strategist Tony Robbins for helping him start Unlimited Tomorrow six years ago when he was 18. Robbins remains a partner.
The softer side of building a prosthetic arm is finding the right skin tone to match a person’s skin, down to the color of the fingernails. Unlimited Tomorrow is innovating ways for customers to make such choices online, which will help reduce costs.
With some early successes, the company hopes to expand its line of prosthetics. Later this year, work will begin on a prosthetic for use above the elbow and then move to prosthetics for lower extremities. Another coming challenge will be designing an exoskeleton device for people who still have limbs but are unable to move them. “It will be a way to regain movement,” he said.