Noah Johnson

Noah Johnson, WCHS junior, works on a drone motor he is building in his industrial technology class. 

This is the story of a Christmas present that was turned into a more comprehensive project that stirred creative power. It’s the story of how Noah Johnson, a junior at Washington Community High School, combined his imagination, adaptive capabilities, initiative and perseverance to achieve an award-winning design of a “robotic arm” that has practical applications. 

This tale took root two years ago when Noah received the Christmas gift of a “build-it-yourself” robotic arm kit.

“I put the robotic arm together using the parts provided in the kit,” Noah said, “and then I uploaded the code to the Arduino board [a programmable microcontroller that is similar to a computer but has the ability to interface directly with components, such as LEDs, sensors and motors]. But I was disappointed with the arm’s performance. I had spent a good deal of time troubleshooting it, but I didn't have any success. Finally, I put the kit aside and pursued other projects.”

One day, almost two years after abandoning the robotic arm project, Noah was looking for a fun undertaking to engage in while he was enduring a monotonous time of the COVID-19 quarantine. In a storage place, he came across the robotic arm project again.

He opened the box and decided his new challenge would be to innovate his own improvements in the design imperfections that frustrated him to the point of discontinuing his involvement with the model kit.

“I decided to just design and build my own robotic arm, using three-dimensional, printed parts,” he explained.

Noah, who plans to pursue a career in Aerospace Engineering and one day work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said that he knew the redesigning process would be “very difficult”.

“There were some nights I spent three hours just modeling it,” Noah said. “I came across a number of problems, like not having enough torque [a twisting force that tends to cause rotation] in the motor.”

Noah said his biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to get the right torque and motors.

“I have a giant box of 3-D printer parts from previous designs,” Noah said. “I tried reducing weight and increasing the size of the servomotor [a rotary actuator or linear actuator that allows for precise control of angular or linear position, velocity and acceleration. A servomotor consists of a suitable motor coupled to a sensor for position feedback, and it is used in applications such as robotics.]”

Noah said he then switched to a high torque servomotor, which was from the acrylic arm kit that he had received as a gift.

The completed arm now can pick up 10x10x10 mm blocks and can move them around.  

“It is very satisfying to see it work,” Johnson said. “The experience taught me a lot.”

Noah Johnson entered his robotic arm project in a contest. The “Instructables” contest offered cash prizes.

“I first posted an RC Transmitter that I built, and I won $50,” Noah said. “It took almost four months to build.”

Noah said it was a “pleasant surprise” to hear he had won money for his robotic arm innovations.

“There were a lot of good projects competing, and I didn’t think I would do that well,” Noah said. “I first learned that they sort through the projects and come up with the top 20. I thought I would get at least $50 for my work, once I saw the list of top 20 entries. It was a big surprise that I won the $250, and I was in the top four entrants.”

Noah said he has been influenced by his father, who is an industrial designer at Caterpillar. 

“He knows a lot about 3-D modeling and has helped with attachment methods and other design methods,” Noah said. “He has taught me a lot.” 

Noah’s latest project is a drone he is designing as an independent study project for his WCHS instructor Curt Whisker’s industrial technology class.

“It will be a lot of work because the programing is very complicated. I have to program PID [Proportional Integral Derivative],” Noah said. “It is a system when the drone is drifting to the left, it will compensate for the drift and give more power to those motors.”

Noah said the greatest success of each of his projects is “finally being able to see it all working together in the end”.

Editor’s note: visit https://www.instructables.com/3D-Printed-Arduino-Based-Robotic-Arm/ to view Noah’s robotics contest entry and profile.