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Is This Drone the Next Cy Twombly?

MIT Media Lab's drawing machine, The Flying Phantograph, allows humans and drones to collab.
March 8, 2016, 6:15pm
The Flying Phantogram in action. Images courtesy the artists

MIT might not technically be an art school, but for machines it could be the best kunstakademie in the world. The Flying Phantograph, a new project from the MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group, explores the creative potential of drones as collaborators with human artists, effectively teaching these machines to art.

Created by Sang-won Leigh, Harshit Agrawal, and Pattie Maes, the Flying Phantograph processes input from human artists, who make drawing movements with a controller. The drone then adds its own aesthetic to final drawing, creating a collaborative piece.


“We present an installation exploring a human-machine creative process, where each of them contributes to the aesthetics of the final art," reads the project’s abstract. "Through such exploration, we seek to understand how a person meanders through a space of expressive intentions, when a machine-driven ‘pantograph’ adds it’s own artistic intentions to it."


Version 1 of the Flying Phantogram software

As the drone attempts to maintain balance against air currents, friction from the canvas, and the organic movements of the artist, it turns the artist’s intended motions into a piece of art characterized by the aesthetics of the machine. The Flying Phantograph can transform a drawing via geometric scaling to make it larger or smaller, mirroring, and time modulation to draw at different speeds.

It would be interesting to see what the would happen if an artist attempted to make a representative, rather than abstract, drawing, using the drone. It also has possibilities in large-scale drawings, or drawings on hard to reach places—like Katsu’s drone graffiti in New York City.

Like any new technology, the Flying Phantograph has its glitches. The above video, taken at Fluid Interfaces Group’s exhibition at the 2016 TEI Conference in Eindhoven, shows the drone following the guidance of a human hand, but then losing its balance and falling to the ground. The video calls it, rather poetically, “a burnt out creation machine.” Oddly, the viewer feels sorry for the drone when it falls. Or maybe not so oddly—what artist or creative hasn’t felt their skills being exploited by the powers that be?

Click here to learn more about The Flying Phantograph.


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