Students Use Programming, Engineering Skills to Program a Robot that Creates Artistic Beauty

Tuesday, January 05, 2016
Team Bob Ross

Happy Little Trees: The members of Team Bob Ross are spending this school year creating a robot artist that reproduces images using paint and canvass.

Robots are great for performing mundane tasks, such as sorting packages or vacuuming floors. But are they ready to become artists?

A team of Rose-Hulman students thinks the answer is "yes--eventually." That's why they have entered the International RobotArt 2016 competition sponsored by 1990 economics and mechanical engineering alumnus Andrew Conru.

Conru's dream is to inspire students around the world to develop a robot that can create something beautiful using paints and a canvass--a challenge four Rose-Hulman mechanical engineering majors are anxious to meet.

"Our project is to paint a picture with a robot using oil paints and a brush," says team member Josh Crook.

The first goal is to have the robot reproduce an image recognizable to a child, such as an elephant, he says.

The Rose-Hulman team is named for late artist Bob Ross, whose mellow style and artistic skill made him an icon for public television viewers. Like Ross, the robot will use a variety of brushes, mix colors, and clean its own brushes. Video feedback will be used to correct errors on the fly.

If a "brush stroke isn't what it should have been, [the robot] will alter the painting accordingly," Crook says.

The contest is an effort to "support education and humanize technology," says Conru, a successful Seattle-based Internet entrepreneur. "If robots can communicate through artwork that provokes humans to think, feel, and do, this gives us a powerful new way to communicate, and a means to shift public perceptions about robots and artificial intelligence."

The competition has attracted teams from Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, and Paris' Les Ateliers Design Institute, among others. Prizes total $100,000.

One of the biggest benefits of the competition is applying classroom lessons to the real world, says team member Zach Dougherty.

"You find there are a lot of hiccups when you actually try to do something," he says.

Other team members include Luke Drong and Gunnar Horve, both of whom are completing minors in robotics this academic year. The competition is the senior capstone design project for all four students.

The team's project must be finished by April 15.