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Student, professor, partner to build drawing robot

April 25, 2018

KOKOMO, Ind. —At first glance, this research project doesn’t look like anything unusual.

But the simple metal frame doesn’t give away this robot’s purpose — creating artwork.

Wayne Madsen and Caleb Rowe

Created by Wayne Madsen, Indiana University Kokomo assistant professor of new media, in partnership with informatics major Caleb Rowe, the drawing robot uses a Pilot ink pen and plain white paper to create 6 foot by 6 foot artworks. It’s a working artist, in fact, with drawings included in exhibitions in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Chicago, with more to come.

See the drawing robot in action: IU Kokomo NMAT drawing robot.

In working with Madsen, Rowe discovered a career possibility he hadn’t considered before, and learned new skills.

“Not many students get to build a giant robot with their professor, and make it draw things,” said Rowe, a junior from Rochester. “This project makes me want to consider pursing jobs in electrical engineering. It’s great to consider other career options. It’s been a lot of fun.”

In addition to assisting in building the drawing robot, Rowe also filmed the process, and created a documentary when they were done.

Madsen didn’t necessarily choose Rowe for existing skills – it was more for his ability to think outside the box.

“Caleb shows a fantastic ability to be curious and explore different options, which is the mark of a good artist and designer,” Madsen said. “I don’t know how to make these things. It was more about us exploring different ways of going about the job, and trial and error until we got there.”

The robot was based on a standard CNC router, which is used to cut large shapes, but “instead of cutting things, we are using media like pen and paper, or ink. It’s basically a large drawing machine,” said Madsen.

For more than three months, they went through the design process, tested, adjusted, and finally arrived at a solution. The robot essentially is a six foot by six-foot square metal frame, less than a foot off the ground, with an arm inside that moves back and forth with a pen, drawing lines on the paper.

Creating artwork with it is not a quick process – each drawing takes approximately 140 hours. The best pens they’ve found to use with it, the Pilot G20, last 28 to 30 hours, which means one of them has to go to Madsen’s studio at least five times for each drawing, to change the pen.

It can draw based on a mathematical program that allows it to make decisions as it works, or drawing based on a pre-determined program. 

“Every drawing is unique, based on the decisions the robot makes,” Rowe said. “The computer makes decisions as it draws.”

In addition to having the robot create artwork, they have other goals for it.

“I’m very interested in co-authorship with other systems to create my own artwork” Madsen said. “I’m not the kind of artist who wants to sit down and make my own images by myself. I want to create with someone — or something — else.”

And this is just the beginning, Madsen said. Eventually, he’s like to be able to have it draw in real time, rather than a preset program, and he would like for it to be able to create work on its own. He’d also like to be able to combine it with sensors to read and register biofeedback,

“This is a long-term project, not the kind of thing that we make it and we’re done with it,” he said, “This is a tool we’ve created that will produce work for the next five to 10 years.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 04/26/2018