Senior Project Mixes Fine Art and High Technology

Tuesday, May 03, 2016
Artificial Intelligence Art

A team of four Rose-Hulman mechanical engineering majors worked for a year to teach a robot to paint. Their robot artist has reproduced several well-known images for an international competition.

A team of Rose-Hulman seniors scored fifth place in an international art competition for robots.

The first International RobotArt contest, sponsored by Rose-Hulman alumnus Andrew Conru, required teams to make a robot create visual art by using paint, brushes, and a canvas.

Online voting determined 40 percent of each team's score, with professional judges determining the rest. More than a dozen teams from around the world took part.

A $30,000 cash prize went to the school of the winning team, with $100,000 in total prize money available. There are two categories of entrants: fully autonomous robots and those requiring human interaction. Rose-Hulman's robot is fully autonomous.

After a year of tough challenges, mechanical engineering majors Gunnar Horve, Josh Crook, Zach Dougherty, and Luke Drong have gotten their robot to reproduce several well-known paintings, including works by Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol.

"We pick an image we want to paint, we simplify the image as much as we can into a certain number of colors, and for each color we generate some paint strokes using a little bit of math and some algorithms," says Horve, who, along with Drong, is completing a minor in robotics. "So the paint strokes really are the instructions to the robot."

The senior-year capstone project was often frustrating, team members say.

"Out of six things that could have gone wrong, all six went wrong," says Crook, who was required to learn RAPID, a high-level computer programming language, to communicate with the team's robotic arm.

Creating an image, the robot moves quickly, dipping an artist's brush into pre-mixed paints and then rapidly applying the paint to a precise spot on a canvas. It repeats this over and over, occasionally pausing to clean the brush by dipping it into a modified kitchen blender, which whirs to life when the brush enters. It takes the robot between one and two hours to reproduce a typical painting, the team says.

Conru, an internet entrepreneur and 1990 economics and mechanical engineering alumnus, says a goal of the contest is to inspire the creative use of high technology to create "something beautiful."

The Rose-Hulman team has embraced Conru's vision, while spurred on by their own personal motivation. As Drong summed it up: "We want to win."