Meet a robot that paints with all the colors of the rainbow

Meet a robot that paints with all the colors of the rainbow

March 02, 2015
By Matt Windsor
The R2 PaintBot, conceived by UAB engineering students and financed through the Crowdfunding at UAB initiative, is designed to paint murals all across Birmingham in concert with the Magic City Mural Collective.

Back in the days when Birmingham’s steel mills made it the industrial capital of the South, dozens of artists swung from the sides of buildings all across town, painting signs advertising everything from dry cleaning services to soda pop and televisions.

A new, crowd-funded project from students in the UAB School of Engineering combines these two pieces of Birmingham’s past in one very modern piece of machinery: the world’s first fully automated mural-painting robot. The leader of the R2 PaintBot team is Marc Parker, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering who also is in touch with his right brain: He graduated with a degree in philosophy from Birmingham-Southern College and worked as a stonemason before deciding to become an engineer. The name is meant to recall R2D2, of “Star Wars” fame, along with the idea of turning art (R) into (2) paint.

The PaintBot team (left to right): Jason Pate, Jasmine Brock, Marc Parker, Dr. Douglas Ross, Veronica Smith, Julia Woods
Parker programs one of the PaintBot's two Arduino controllers
Another look at the Arduino controller board and the servos that will control the PaintBot's airbrushes
Brock, Pate, Parker, and Woods in the School of Engineering Design Lab
The team has created its own custom parts on the 3D printers in the design lab
A finished piece waits in the 3D printer
Rendering of an airbrush with servos and 3D parts attached
Structural drawings from Parker's notebook
Brock drills one of the PaintBot's metal components

In a fundraising video posted to Crowdfunding at UAB, the university’s new initiative to fund innovative projects, Parker describes the machine as “something like a dot-matrix printer.” Four computer-controlled airbrushes apply cyan, magenta, yellow and black paint in various-sized dots. Its designers call them pixels; Georges Seurat would recognize the output as pointillism. The airbrushes are suspended by cables from a metal frame and are capable of reproducing any digital image at a scale up to 15 feet wide and 10 feet high. PaintBot should be able to create a work that size in about eight hours, Parker estimates. “It depends on how many times we have to refill the paint cans.”

PaintBotwithCables 400Schematic of the assembled PaintBotThe video, which was created by Parker’s friend, videographer Joe Walker, touched a chord. In one rapid-fire weekend, the group reached its $5,000 funding goal. The team now is racing to get its machine finished in time for the April 15 open house for senior projects in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. Most of PaintBot’s parts are available on the store shelf; others, including the paint holders, are being custom-built using the department’s 3D printer. The team also is raising additional support, which would allow them to make the PaintBot project available to future students at the School of Engineering.  “They can make it more efficient and do a better job of producing images,” Parker said. “We considered certain alternative designs that we didn’t pursue; next year’s group will do that as well.”

Parker was inspired by the Magic City Mural Collective, a group of local artists — including faculty in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Art and Art History — who are determined to paint murals in all 99 Birmingham neighborhoods. “Think about how cool that is — a city covered in art,” Parker said. “I helped out painting an ‘It’s Nice To Have You in Birmingham’ on the TrimTab brewery,” he said. “I quickly found out that it’s so hard to get the pencil and chalk markings that are used to outline the design level on the wall.”

Precision is PaintBot’s specialty. Its rigid metal frame is being constructed from material donated by Hannah Steel. Direct-current motors at the top of the frame pull cable through worm gears to move it into position; smaller “stepper” motors at the bottom provide tension to keep the airbrushes in the right location. Sensors inside the paint containers alert operators when they are running low.



The goal is “absolutely not to replace artists,” Parker said. “It doesn’t do block letters well. It would do a really ugly ‘It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham’ sign, for example. But it can outline a mural for artists, which leaves them more time for the concept and painting, which is where the creativity is. The PaintBot can’t do what a person can, and it can do things that most people cannot do, so we really consider it to be another medium for artists. For the most part, artists are really excited about it, and they immediately think about possibilities for their own work — how they could use this for projects on a large scale.”

The reaction to the project has been “incredibly encouraging,” Parker said. “People have confidence that we can do it, and they are willing to support new ideas.” One obstacle for entrepreneurship in Birmingham “that I’ve heard a lot is that there are not enough angel investors or venture capitalists willing to invest in startups,” said Parker. “Crowdfunding could be a way to overcome that.”