New System Helps Control Swarm of Robots to Paint a Picture

The concept of a swarm of robots taking instructions and painting a picture might seem unrealistic but a new study reported in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, an open-access journal, has demonstrated that it is achievable.

Video Credit: M. Santos and coauthors.

Video Credit: M. Santos and coauthors.

The robots reported in the study move over a canvas and leave color trails in their wake. For the first-ever time in the case of a robot-created art, areas of the canvas can be selected by an artist to be painted with a certain color, where the robot team obliges in real time.

The method shows the potential of robotics in creating art and could turn out to be a fascinating tool for artists. Moreover, this human-swarm interaction modality may offer a basis for collaborative studies that combine arts and other sciences.

It can be an epic struggle and highly labor-intensive to create art. For painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo took considerable time and effort. In a world highly dominated by automation and technology, physical art creation has been a chiefly manual pursuit, where paintbrushes and chisels are still being used commonly. Although there is nothing wrong with this, what if robotics could help or even expand the creative repertoire of humans?

The intersection between robotics and art has become an active area of study where artists and researchers combine creativity and systematic thinking to push the boundaries of different art forms. However, the artistic possibilities of multi-robot systems are yet to be explored in depth.

Dr María Santos, Georgia Institute of Technology

The new study analyzes the potential for robot swarms to make a painting. The team developed a system using which an artist can designate various regions of a canvas to be painted a particular color.

The robots achieve this by interacting with each other, where individual robots traverse the canvas and leave a trail of colored paint behind them. The robots create this by mixing paints of various colors available on-board.

The multi-robot team can be thought of as an ‘active’ brush for the human artist to paint with, where the individual robots (the bristles) move over the canvas according to the color specifications provided by the human.

Dr María Santos, Georgia Institute of Technology

As part of the experiments, a projector was used by the team to mimic a colored paint trail behind each robot. The researchers plan to create robots that can use liquid paint in the future. With the newly developed system, even if some robots could not access all the pigments needed to make the designated color, they could still work collaboratively and approximate the color considerably well.

The new system could enable artists to manipulate the robot swarm as it makes the artwork in real time. The artist does not have to give instructions separately for each robot or even bother if they have access to all the required colors, thus enabling them to focus on the creation of the painting.

The resulting images in this study are abstract and look like the crayon drawing by a child. They exhibit exclusive areas of color that flow into each other, indicating the artist’s input, and are attractive to the eye. Upcoming versions of the system could enable more refined images.

Most significantly, the images show that an artist can successfully instruct a robot swarm to create a picture. The method could also find potential applications in other fields where it could be valuable to easily manipulate the actions of a swarm of robots. A robot orchestra could even be possible!

Journal Reference:

Santos, M., et al. (2020) Interactive Multi-Robot Painting Through Colored Motion Trails. Frontiers in Robotics and AI.


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