May 30, 2024

Aye, Robots! Securing the Link Between Physical Artworks and Digital Records

Aye, Robots! Securing the Link Between Physical Artworks and Digital Records

One of Artclear’s USPs is the connections we create between digital and physical records. These connections give us rock-solid anchor points between the digital records we secure on the blockchain and the physical artworks to which they relate.

Establishing such connections is straightforward when the physical thing is fixed and immobile, like land. But it is much more problematic when the thing is mobile and copyable. Solutions to date have depended on either making the objects less mobile by locking them away in vaults, or less copyable by incorporating security features like metal strips and fancy inks. The drawbacks of both approaches are obvious. Locking things up eliminates any practical or aesthetic value they may have, while security features have to be incorporated in the fundamental design of the object.

At Artclear, we take a different approach, based on making a work of art uncopyable by measuring the intrinsic randomness that arises out of the process of its creation. But taking these measurements with the reliability to achieve “forensic” levels of certainty -usually defined as less than a one in a billion chance of a false reading- requires a level of precision beyond what can be achieved by human hand and eye. So, we have worked with a robotic automation company, first to develop a prototype of an automated scanner that ensures our technology delivers repeatable results, and now to build the first production version.

I won’t go too far into the details of our scanner design at this point. It uses imaging technology to select regions of an artwork to scan, and motion control systems to navigate to these regions to collect the data we need. As a non-technologist, when I started out on this project I had a feeling that it might be technically difficult to design the scanner to give the required levels of consistency, given that it is a portable device that must operate in many different environments and at a speed and cost to give our business viable economics. However, any doubts I might have harboured were swiftly banished when I saw some of the other systems our partners are working on.

One of these is designed to automate the construction of aircraft wings using composite materials. What this means is that the robots can lay large pieces of carbon fibre fabric on a wing section that curves in every possible direction, with no wrinkles or folds and with all the fibres aligned in the correct direction, and hold them there until they can be secured more permanently ready for curing. To do this, the company has designed an operating head known as an actuator that can lift the fabric and pre-form it into the precise shape required, before laying it on the wing in exactly the right location.

Robot designed to assist with airplane construction

The actuators are designed to fit onto robot arms, several of which can operate collaboratively to get the required scale. Scale is vital in aircraft manufacture and to facilitate it our partners have recently acquired a pair of truly giant arms, each of which has a 3.5m reach and can lift a tonne. The arms, named Loki and Thor, operate together on a rail that is fitted to a specially constructed base in the workshop floor. The whole system must combine highly accurate imaging and millimetre perfect motion control to deliver consistent results in an environment where mistakes could lead to catastrophic loss of life. Seeing these goliaths, I realized that Artclear’s requirements are really quite simple by comparison.

As a founder, I am happy with that. We are bringing together several different branches of technology to deliver the Artclear solution and our innovation is focussed on applying them to improve the business model and working practices of the global art market. It greatly reduces our risk that all these technologies are tried and tested.

However, while I have been involved in technology development on many occasions in my career and some of it has seemed quite cool, seeing numbers and forms manipulated on a screen does not give you anything like the visceral thrill you get from seeing large machines performing complex tasks. So, as a closet geek I am also thrilled that we are drawing on some of the most advanced manufacturing expertise in the world to create a brand-new device.

Artclear is like that. How many other projects combine robots, blockchain, fine art and industry level change? I know I might be biased, but I cannot think of a more interesting thing to be working on.