Robot Swarms Follow Instructions to Create Art

Robot swarm on canvas. (Photo by Maria Santos and study co-authors)

(CN) — The term “robot swarm” conjures dystopian images of killer robot hordes rising up against their human masters. But a new study aims to demonstrate that multi-robot systems can be used for a higher purpose: art.

Researchers led by Dr. María Santos of the Georgia Institute of Technology explored the possibility of tiny, coordinated robots covering a canvas with various colors.

“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,” Santos stated. “However, the artistic possibilities of multi-robot systems are yet to be explored in depth.”

“Interactive Multi-Robot Painting Through Colored Motion Trails,” published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI, details how researchers designed a system to designate which regions on a canvas should receive paint, as well as which colors should be applied to those regions.

Using a projector, Santos and her colleagues — Gennaro Notomista and Magus Egerstedt, both of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Siddharth Mayya from the University of Pennsylvania — simulated a paint trail behind each robot.

“In a team, the robots cover the domain according to the (programmed) densities, coordinating among themselves based on their painting equipment,” the study authors wrote.

In a video of the simulation, the robots operating at slower speeds look like dark Matchbox cars with tower antennas creating crayon worm trails in their wake. At faster speeds however, the 12-robot swarm appears more like bumblebees buzzing busily across the canvas, which is quickly covered in seemingly random patterns reminiscent of an abstract painting.

“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,” Santos said.

While the completed painting is too crude to be considered art because the technology needs refinement, the concept seems plausible. And in “a first for robot-created art,” artists can select where the robots distribute the colors and which colors should be placed in specific areas in real time.

“The images confirm that it is possible for an artist to successfully instruct a robot swarm to paint a picture,” Santos said.

The next step for Santos and her colleagues is to develop a robot that can apply actual paint onto a real canvas to create a more refined image. But the implications of her study are clear.

“This system could allow artists to control the robot swarm as it creates the artwork in real time,” Santos said. “The artist doesn’t need to provide instructions for each individual robot, or even worry whether they have access to all the colors needed, allowing them to focus on creating the painting.”

Santos’ work has garnered attention in the past. During her doctoral studies, she was awarded a La Caixa Fellowship for Graduate Studies in North America.

When she’s not researching robotics, the native of Spain plays violin, lending her insight into the artistic process.

But do modern artists want to harness technology to produce art? Santos thinks the idea has potential, given how tactile and labor-intensive creating art continues to be in an increasingly digital world. After all, robots already build cars and assist doctors in surgery.

Why not art?

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