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Watch: Wall-crawling robot artist turns building into art

A group of Estonian technologists use a giant printer capable of producing images at building scale.

The city of West Orange, New Jersey, has two new murals along Main Street. Depicting bygone images and steeped in the history of the town, the works of art nevertheless have a decidedly modern twist: They were painted with a wall-crawling robot named Albert, the brainchild of an Estonian inventor and a group of artist-technologists who have turned the idea into a bustling startup called SprayPrinter.

Robots have long been tools of artistic expression. The Smithsonian has an annual competition for robot-generated art, and artists have long deployed robots in the service of their own art.

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Albert the robot utilizes a printhead that contains five cans of acetone-based spray paint, the same stuff used by graffiti artists. The robot functions just like a desktop printer, except the printhead moves along both X and Y axes, scaling walls with help from top-mounted guy-wires. It can produce pixels as small as one centimeter in diameter.

Albert is a robotic version of a smaller handheld product invented by Mikhel Joala and funded with crowd backing. Working with Estonian street artists, who are often under pressure to complete their projects quickly, he set out to find a way to transfer pre-designed images from a computer to an outdoor surface.

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His solution combines a Wii controller and an engine valve from a car. The handheld device clips onto a can of spray paint and interfaces with a smartphone on a tripod. As the artist moves the spray can along a wall, the phone tells the device when to emit paint and in what volume.

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"Engines nowadays use extremely fast valves to spray fuel to [the] combustion chamber, [and] I realized I can use them to shoot paint with pinpoint accuracy," says Joala.

When Joala met Estonian entrepreneur Richard Murutar, the seeds of a business were born. Additional team members have rounded out the scrappy startup, which has one foot in the world of guerrilla art and the other in Silicon Valley, where SprayPrinter has been racking up awards from events and accelerators.

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Albert, the larger robotic version of the handheld spray printer, moves with help from two overhead guy-wires. Drone propellers keep the robot pinned to the wall during painting.

So far, the team has done more than 100 commercial installations globally and has offices in Estonia and San Francisco.

The West Orange, NJ, murals reportedly cost $7,600, a special package rate the city received in a deal involving other nearby cities that are also getting murals painted.

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