This robot painter can save time, manpower

The PictoBot can spray-paint a 90 sq m wall within an hour, a task which currently takes two workers more than 90 minutes to complete.
The PictoBot can spray-paint a 90 sq m wall within an hour, a task which currently takes two workers more than 90 minutes to complete.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

A new robot that can paint faster than humans will soon be brushing its way across industrial buildings here, and may even roll into other spaces if ongoing tests take off.

The PictoBot, invented by scientists from the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Robotic Research Centre, can spray-paint high interior walls 25 per cent faster than two workers.

For instance, a 90 sq m wall usually takes over 90 minutes for two men to spray-paint. But the robot, which weighs 1,500kg when fully loaded with paint and 12 batteries, can do the job within an hour.

The PictoBot, named after pictor, the Latin word for painter, can house 120 litres of paint before it is manually refilled.

Using an optical camera and laser, it can automatically scan its surroundings and navigate walls up to 10m high with its six-axis robotic arm and automated jack-up platform. The machine, which measures 2m by 2m by 3.5m, was developed in a year by JTC Corporation and local start-up Aitech Robotics and Automation.

The National Research Foundation, which supported the project through its Test Bedding and Demonstration of Innovative Research funding initiative, did not reveal the robot's cost. But it said funding of up to $1 million is provided for each project under the initiative.

Mr Anil Das, director of JTC's innovation programme office and corporate planning, said the robot helps to mitigate risks of painting at height, as many industrial buildings have high ceilings to house bulky equipment and materials.

Currently, painting these walls requires at least two painters in a scissor lift. The PictoBot, which can run for four hours on one battery charge, requires only one human supervisor and can even operate in the dark.

The principal investigator of the project, Professor Chen I-Ming, director of the NTU Robotic Research Centre, said the PictoBot has a higher quality of finish compared with current painting methods.

"Painting large industrial spaces is repetitive, labour intensive and time-consuming," said Prof Chen. "The autonomous behaviour also means that a single operator can handle multiple robots and refill their paint reservoirs."

Prof Chen's team will continue to look at improving the robot, such as enabling it to replace its own paint cans and paint in more than one colour. He added that they are considering rolling out the use of the robot to non-industrial buildings, although more testing is needed in the meantime.

To ensure that the robot's functions are comparable or better than industry standards, it will next be tested at industrial developments such as JTC Space @ Gul.

VIDEO:
Watch the PictoBot painting a wall at http://str.sg/4YSt.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'This robot painter can save time, manpower'. Print Edition | Subscribe