PaintCopter developed by Disney Research shows potential

By Patrick C. Miller | October 18, 2018

The Disney Research branch of the Walt Disney Co. has developed a specially modified quadcopter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to fly autonomously while spray painting 3D surfaces.

The project is described in a paper authored by members of the research team and has been accepted for publication in the IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters. According to the paper, the use of UAVs for painting is relatively new. Previously, it was attempted on 2D surfaces for short flight durations.

According to Disney Research, the PaintCopter has the potential to produce accurate, predictable and repeatable painting results at low cost while avoiding the need for scaffolding and ladders—making it a safer option. Another goal of the project was to texture paint being applied to a 3D surface.

The drone used for the Disney Research project is a highly modified DJI Matrice 100. It is tethered via power, paint and pressure lines, as well as a wired ethernet connection. This enables the drone to fly for long periods of time without changing batteries or resupplying paint, making the UAV suitable for industrial painting missions.

The PaintCopter is equipped with a custom arm and spray gun mounted on a pan and tilt unit (PTU). The arm prevents the paint spray from being affected by the rotor wash. Onboard sensing units that include an Intel RealSense R200 depth camera and S360 stereo camera are used to maintain the proper distance from the object being painted.

Two onboard computers allow for real-time processing. They include an Nvidia Jetson TX2 for the graphic processing of 3D maps and an Intel UP board to run the flight control software. Both computers communicate with a base station through the ethernet connection. All processing is performed onboard the PaintCopter to avoid unexpected behavior from the loss of communications or time delays.

The base station is a Linux computer running a graphic user interface (GUI) for launching various processes on the onboard computers. The GUI can visualize data from the sensors and monitor the core processes. The operator can send commands to the UAV to begin autonomous flight mode or a launch a painting sequence.

The first stage is to scan the target surface, creating an accurate 3D model. The designer then specifies a painting line, the area to be filled and how the spray gun is directed during the painting mission.

The UAV autonomously flies the trajectory generated during the task planning stage and directs the spray gun to targets on the surface. Some experiments were performed with water instead of paint and viewed using a thermal camera. The PaintCopter demonstrated that it could fill an area while flying a programmed pattern or paint an outline. Other experiments demonstrated the repeatability of the spraying.

The experiments for the PaintCopter project were conducted at a Disney Research lab next to ETH Zurich—a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university—in Switzerland. Disney Research also has a lab in Los Angeles near the California Institute of Technology.

The objective of Disney Research is to develop value across the Walt Disney Co. through scientific and technological innovation. Research areas include visual computing, robotics, machine learning and data analytics, human computer interaction, and materials and fabrication.