Don’t Tell Banksy, But MIT Invented The Perfect Drone For Graffiti

The Flying Pantograph can help you draw on a wall you can’t reach–even from a world away.

The intersection of drones and street art is nothing new, but these experiments have been complicated and hard to control: more flying tech vandals than aerial artists. But the Flying Pantograph from MIT is different. It makes writing on walls from a room or even miles away as easy as using a pen. But its creators think it’s good for a lot more than just street art.


Created by Sang-won Leigh and Harshit Agrawal, two students working within MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group, the Flying Pantograph takes its name from a device first created in 1603. Pantographs use mechanical linkages to duplicate (or scale up) a drawing, mimicking the motions of a human artist to copy their lines on a different piece of paper. The Flying Pantograph takes this concept, and adds a drone to the mix. Using a regular pen on a standard piece of paper–and some motion tracking tech–the Flying Pantograph will reproduce your drawing at any scale you want, wherever it’s flying.

Right now, that’s just across the room, but Leigh and Agrawal say there’s no reason the Flying Pantograph’s tether needs to be that short: It could just as easily replicate a drawing across the city, country, or world. That could open the door to some interesting guerilla street art. If police think catching Banksy is hard now, imagine how hard it will be when he’s a world away from the drone doing his street art.

The duo envision the Flying Pantograph having many more applications than just street art, though. Using more than one Flying Pantograph, multiple artists could collaborate on a piece in real time without even being in the same room. With some tweaking, the Flying Pantograph could even have applications for the disabled, too: For example, someone who doesn’t have the use of their arms could control a Flying Pantograph to write something on a whiteboard using eye-tracking.

The Flying Pantograph isn’t quite that sophisticated yet. In its earliest iteration, it uses a motion-tracking system to watch what the pen is doing, and then send commands to a laptop over Wi-Fi. This, in turn, controls the drone–which has to battle air currents to recreate the motions, creating an often shaky version of the original. There’s no reason it couldn’t be programmed to accept other kinds of input methods, though: eye-tracking, EEGs, and even VR controllers are all possible. Leigh and Agrawal also hope its future drawings will be accurate through the use of more sophisticated drones, and imagine giving users the ability to add stylistic “filters” to their drawings. Draw like Picasso? The Flying Pantograph could turn it into a Da Vinci.

Ultimately, say Leigh and Agrawal, the project is all about experimenting with technology that allows artists to help escape their biological limits and produce wholly unique, machine-assisted works of art. “One of the most innate things a human can do to be creative is draw,” says Agrawal. “If our creativity is going to escape our biological limitations, finding new ways seems like a natural extension.”

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