No matter how experienced you are at being inked, it’s always pretty nerve-wracking knowing the finished product will stay with you for the rest of your life. With that in mind, would you be brave enough to let a robot do the inking instead of a human?
In a world-first, Dutch actress Stijn Fransen has received a tattoo from a robotic arm controlled by an artist that was far, far away. The feat was performed in conjunction with network provider T-Mobile Netherlands as a demonstration of its new 5G network, which was used to control the procedure.
While you may think Fransen is braver than most, robots have been trusted with things as important as surgery for years already. Robotic arms controlled by surgeons on site have been utilized in extremely complex surgeries, and last year a surgeon made history performing a procedure remotely on a cadaver from the comfort of his own home. So, if surgeons can do it, why can’t tattoo artists?
That is the attitude of artist Wes Thomas and London robotics technologist Noel Drew, who worked together to bring the dream to life. Using 3D printing and all the spare time as a result of lockdowns, Drew spent six weeks creating a robotic arm with an ink needle that was capable of fine movements controlled over 5G. Documented in a series titled 'The Impossible Tattoo', Thomas performed the first remote tattoo on Fransen.
Throughout the period, the robotic arm was tested many, many times on various mediums (including vegetables) to make sure it was ready for a human arm. The needle was equipped with a sensor that prevents it from penetrating the skin too deep, avoiding a nasty accident.
“Each day was a small step (sometimes backwards) and when we weren’t developing we were testing and then more testing and then even more testing. Many butternut squashes were harmed in the test cycle before it was refined and ready for reality,” said Drew, speaking to PC Magazine.
After practising on a mannequin for the cameras, the rig was deemed ready to go. Taking his place in a rig equipped with a stylus that tracks his movements, Thomas began ‘inking’ a mannequin arm, his movements feeding directly into the robotic arm that began creating the tattoo on Fransen.
The end result was a minimalist, small tattoo on Fransen’s forearm. Despite its small form, the tattoo represents a giant leap in remote robotics. Robotic arms allow people far more precision than mere mortal capabilities, so long as the calibration is on point. Improvements will certainly be needed before such technology will be deployed to the mainstream market, but with more hospitals and workplaces embracing robotics, it may not be long before they become a familiar sight in the tattoo parlor too.