Fern: An Exploration of Robotic Drawings, Algorithms, and Design

Isaac Bromley-Dulfano, College of Engineering

The purpose of Fern is to fulfill a fundamentally artistic exploration of robotic drawing centered around three main questions:

  1. How many algorithms can one conceive to convert an image from pixelated data to an abstract geometric representation to a set of machine instructions for a drawing robot to physically execute.
  2. How can sensory input interact with observers to distort these representations?
  3. How can robotic drawings be synthesized with other creators’ physical artwork to make half-human/half-machine collaborative pieces?

Exploring these questions will require both a well-engineered machine and an abundance of creative power. As a third-year electrical engineering student, I’m eager to design a precise and flexible machine that meets the necessary engineering standards. This project really began mid-quarantine as a collaboration with a friend from home. We set out to build a drawing machine from scratch, doing our own 3D modeling, soldering, and programming. Eventually, we completed our limited, but functional prototype. While it was speedily designed and too small to fill a proper canvas, it carried out instructions with remarkable precision.

Inspired by our partnership, the first step in my proposal is to redesign Fern from bottom-up. I will make it large enough to fill an 8” x 12” canvas and seek advice from collaborators in mechanical engineering to improve the structural rigidity. Further, I will expand the dictionary of machine instructions (e.g.“draw circle of radius, r, at position, x,y”), and design custom printed circuit boards to make the electronics more robust. These improvements will make it easier to implement a range of drawing algorithms and facilitate connections between Fern and external sensors (e.g. camera). In this phase, I will be discussing the design scheme regularly with peers in the CoE and collaborators in Shift Creator Space.

Once Fern is fully assembled, I will begin the exploration phase of this proposal. At this point, I will begin heavily engaging other artists, scientists, and engineers. In only a handful of conversations thus far, I’ve already discussed some amazing implementation concepts! Their ideas have included using machine learning to complete an observer’s drawing, integrating a brain-computer interface to modulate image data, and applying convolutional neural networks to stylize images prior to drawing. With a well-designed platform, I’m confident we can implement these ideas (and more) building on my collaborators’ knowledge. At the conclusion of this project, I envision Fern surrounded by artwork made in partnership with others, spanning a wide variety of styles, subjects, and media. Fern is named after the low-light houseplant that I associate with coffee shops. For me, coffee shops have always been welcoming environments where I can freely exchange creative and personal ideas with friends. Throughout this project, I hope to provide that atmosphere to collaborators and observers, alike.