Case Western Reserve students team up to build robotic arm for photographer

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Posted at 4:34 PM, Dec 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-10 19:27:35-05

CLEVELAND — We all know a picture is worth a thousand words, and for Aurelian Barber, it sometimes takes a thousand different steps to get the perfect one.

Aurelian has a passion for photography, snapping images for 15 years.

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Aurelian Barber.

The only problem is — they’re all often from the same exact angle.

“My legs didn’t develop the muscles needed to be able to walk,” Aurelian explained. He has arthrogryposis and has been in a wheelchair his entire life. He actually came to the Cleveland Clinic for surgery at 15 years old from Romania and ended up staying here.

He uses his design skills to trick out and customize his wheelchair to fit his own needs.

“I started with tutorials online and I challenge myself,” he said.

Aurelian used the 3D printer and tools at Case Western Reserve University’s “ThinkBox” located on Cedar Avenue, coming and going for the last four years.

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Aurelian Barber.

It’s billed as the largest makerspace and innovation center in the United States — open to anyone in the community for free.

“People come in with these passions and we’re all just helping each other through projects to bring these passions to reality,” said Misha Villanueva, the fabrication floor manager.

Villanueva noticed Aurelian constantly coming in and realized that he wanted to build a robotic arm for his wheelchair — and his camera.

“So really want to be able to take pictures really 6 feet high and even down low for those dramatic shots,” Misha said. As we know, photography is all about the angles.

So Misha enlisted the help of Engineers Without Borders, including Myles Smith, a junior mechanical and aerospace engineering major at CWRU.

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Aurelian Barber.

When they pitched the idea to help Aurelian, more than half a dozen students jumped in to take on the project — outside of class and on their own time.

“In a lot of other projects, you’re working with a community or village in another country, where in this project, Aurelian is involved in the design process so we get immediate feedback and he is also coming up with ideas,” Smith said. The design is complex and custom.

ThinkBox gave a grant of $1,400 to the students for the project.

The mechanical arm project is currently in the design and prototyping phase, with students meeting every week to do research and sketches. Next semester, they’ll build it out.

And every step of the way, Aurelian is there, telling us that words aren’t enough to express his gratitude.

“Thank you is not gonna be enough, but I am very thankful,” Aurelian said.


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