Humans are constantly fascinated by music-playing robots. There is something profoundly compelling about watching a mechanical being imitate the art and skill of playing a musical instrument. The latest crazy robot musical symphony comes in Automatica – a project that enlists several industrial robots to form a giant mechanical orchestra, with amazing and destructive results.
The project is the brainchild of engineer-artist-and all around musical mad scientist, Nigel Stanford. You may remember Stanford from an incredible video called Cymatics, released two years ago, which highlighted how sound can affect matter in some genuinely spectacular ways. His latest project, which you can view below, repurposes several industrial robots into a 21st century bot band.
Automatica began back in 2015 when Stanford was loaned three industrial robots from a company in Germany. These robots were usually used to build cars or weld metal, but as Stanford told New Atlas in an email, "they can be programmed to do anything really."
Surprised that he had convinced the company to lend him the robots, Stanford set them up in his garage and spent the next four weeks trying to work out how to program them. Through trial and error he finally got the bots ready for the film shoot.
"The main complication on the shoot was due to the fact that I only had three robots but needed to make it look like I had 16 of them," says Stanford. "The only way to do that was to use a motion controlled camera – basically another robot – on a track. The camera could be programmed to make a move, then the robots positioned in the background and the same move filmed again. In post production, I could then combine the foreground and background shots so that you see six robots in one shot. The final shot had about eight passes and shows all 16 robots."
Stanford has ultimately created several videos and an entire album under the Automatica banner. The robots play much of the music on the album using five main instruments – drums, bass, piano, synth and turntables. While the piano and synth were relatively easy instruments to teach the robots to play, others presented more of a challenge.
"The bass and DJ were the hardest because the robots had to press down hard enough onto the strings and turntable to operate them, but not so hard as to destroy them," Stanford tells us. "Fortunately the robots are accurate to within 0.3 mm each time."
For those interested in the nitty gritty details, Stanford tells us he programmed the robots using Maya 3D modeling software with a plugin called Robot Animator.
"I had previously used this software to create 3D graphics, so I knew the basics," says Stanford. "I would program the moves in Maya and export a text file containing the move, which I would load into the robots. I'd then run the move to see if it worked. If not I'd make adjustments and try again."
All up, Stanford has worked on this project for over two years now and has more videos on the way. The big question is will we see a live robot show sometime in the future? Stanford suggests this possibility is on the horizon.
Take a look through our gallery of behind the scenes stills to see how this amazing video was put together.
The full album and other extras can be found on Nigel Stanford's website.