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Disney takes to the air with an autonomous paint-spraying drone

PaintCopter: An Autonomous UAV for Spray Painting on 3D Surfaces

The folks at Disney Research get to work on a lot of fun stuff. From a so-called Force Jacket for heightened virtual reality experiences to a human-sized acrobatic robot, the team experiments with a range of offbeat ideas that sometimes lead to further development.

Somewhat curiously, the latest idea to emerge from its workshop seems to have more to do with maintenance work than entertainment.

The PaintCopter, as its name suggests, is a paint-spraying drone, though admittedly a rather clever one as it can apply specific designs to 3D objects as well as flat surfaces. The idea is that by painting surfaces using an unmanned aerial vehicle, we’ll be able to do away with the need for scaffolding, saving time and improving safety in the process.

Instead of a battery, the quadcopter —  a modified DJI Matrice 100 — receives power via a cord attached to a source on the ground so it can stay in the air till the paint job is complete. Likewise, instead of loading the drone with heavy containers full of paint, the machine receives the liquid from a tube connected to a large container that’s also back on the ground. The paint is applied to the target area via a nozzle fixed to the front of the drone.

But it’s not just a case of sending the drone up and hitting the spray button. Disney Research’s technology enables the drone to carry out its task autonomously. Before the painting begins, the drone’s cameras map the target area as part of the preparation process. Using the collected data, the designers can then program how they want the paint to be applied, which could be a general “fill,” or something more detailed such as line drawings.

As you can see from the video, those line-drawing skills clearly need honing, but overall the technology appears to function pretty effectively.

It’s not clear if Disney has plans to one day use the technology to touch up some of its aging theme park attractions as and when required, or to market the system for commercial use. The design is nevertheless the latest example of the potential of drones to transform a number of industries.

Disney Research’s drone brings to mind Aerone’s huge multi-rotor flying machine used for cleaning wind turbines. Like Disney’s contraption, it has a hose for spraying liquid, and receives its power from a source on the ground.

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