Our Story

as told by Sam

It’s 2017, and I’m a member of the local Traffic Advisory Council. We are planning a complete resurfacing of Noble Rd, a fifty-foot wide four-lane highway that no longer has the traffic count to justify its continued existence in its present form. So we thought we could put it on what’s called a road diet, cutting it down to just one car lane each way, with a shared center turning lane. There would be enough room left over for a five-foot wide bike lane on each side with a four-foot wide diagonally striped buffer lane to separate it from the rest of the traffic.  This would be the first link in the proposed EastSide Greenway plan, and we were all very excited.

Everyone signed off on it.

Then—suddenly—we were notified that the plan wasn’t going to be implemented. The problem, they told us, was the paint.

“What? What’s the problem with the paint?” I asked.

“Well, it’s just too expensive.”

“How much does it cost? I don’t get it.”

“Well, it’s $30,000,” they said.

“But this is a $2.1 million project. $30,000 is a rounding error; I’m sure we can find a place to hide it if it comes to that.”

“Yeah,” they said, “but it’s not that  $30,000.”

“Huh? Quit talking in riddles. What’s the problem?”

“It’s the $30,000 to repaint it next year; that’s the problem.”

As you might imagine, this raised two immediate questions in my mind:

1. “Why would this need to be repainted after only one year?”  and
2. “Why is this painting so expensive. The project is only about two miles.”

I soon learned that the city uses only water-based paints, because we are in an air quality nonattainment zone. In the meantime, I asked again why the painting was so expensive.

“Well,”  they told me, “it’s all hand work.”

“What? You got Picasso with a paint brush?”

“No, it’s not Picasso. But this is all hand-stenciled work, all those arrows and those diagonal stripes, those bike markings, all of that.”

“What? I don’t get it. Why don’t you call the guy with the machine?”

The city staff was now looking at me like I had three heads. “What guy? What machine?”

“You know,” I said, “the guy with the machine that paints the arrows and the stripes.”

“No,” they said flatly. “There is no guy, and there is no machine.”

“There’s got to be someone. A guy, with a machine.”

“Good luck with that.”

Now, I’ll confess that I simply didn’t believe them: I was sure there was someone, somewhere, who had such a machine. So I set out to find him. 
Google is everybody’s friend, right? And yet, they had trouble finding the guy. And they couldn’t find the machine at all.  My kid sister lives in Canada, so I asked her to check there. Nothing. My older sister is retired from her job as Vice-President for Global Solutions for a company called IBM. She lives in France. I called her for help, because she’s got a network for everything. Everything, that is, except the guy and his machine. 

Pretty soon I’m checking with friends in Australia, New Zealand. Africa, South America, Japan, China.  And nobody can point me to the guy, or to his machine.

A little research shows that the earliest known hand stencils, literally stencils of an outstretched hand and arm, are at least 40,000 years old. They’re on the walls of a cave in Borneo. And a little more research shows that the process hasn’t changed in all that time, so it’s still just as efficient as you’d expect for a technique that was invented the week after they invented paint.

But in my mind’s eye, I could see how one could easily design a mechanism to paint diagonal lines: you could, for instance, run it off the rear axle (or as a towed trailer) with a paint gun that would move sideways as the vehicle rolled along. So, how hard could it be to add a few turn arrows and some bike graphics?  After all, you can draw pretty much anything you want to on a modern computer, and your printer can put it on a piece of paper. Why not think of the painter as a printer that could move over the road?

Now, about this time, I happened to go on a bike ride with my good friend Wyatt Newman, and I get to telling him this story. Since Wyatt is one of the top roboticists in the world, I wasn’t surprised that he thought that this would be a good application for a robot. After all, he thinks almost everything would be a good application for a robot. We discussed it over a beer and agreed that a robot solution might be a good idea. And after another beer, we were convinced that it would be an excellent solution.

As it happens, there are a lot of reasons, good reasons, why there was no guy, why there was no machine. First off, while long lines like centerlines and lane lines, are pretty easy to do with a truck-mounted spray gun, all the other lines are hard. This is mostly because the trucks don’t go sideways very well. You can do stop lines and crosswalks with a little walk-behind or ride-on sprayer, but you need to snap a chalk line to lay them out first. (Repaints are a little easier: just follow the old lines.) As for arrows, well they have triangular edges. These are easy to stencil, but hard to paint with an automatic sprayhead of the sort found on paint trucks. So, you’d have to reinvent a good deal of paint technology and you’d want it all computer controlled if your robot was going to do it. 

Fast forward to a couple of research and development grants* later, years of painstaking work from the best coders we could find, and we’ve trained a nice robot mounted onto a truck to do all these things and more. It took a while, there were some smashed robot parts, but now we’ve got it pretty close to where we can say, we are the guy with the machine.

*Many thanks to GLIDE, Ohio Third Frontier/TVSF, and the National Science Foundation, and our early investors.