Two years ago, the world’s first street art drone heralded a new age of urban art. Now, an MIT professor plans to remote-paint walls and surfaces with an elaborate-slash-ingenious “Paint by Drone” quadcopter formation.

April 30th, 2015, a dark night on Broadway. For the past six weeks, super model Kendall Jenner has been seducing passers-by from a six-story billboard. But hang on, what’s that? A small, buzzing flying object approaches the top of the beauty’s nose. A shaky red line appears over her eye and segues into a spidery whorl. The remote-controlled quadcopter turns away and disappears. Nobody seems to have noticed the property damage, but the very next day a clip of the event becomes a viral YouTube hit.

Icarus One, the world’s first graffiti drone and the brainchild of NYC graffiti legend Katsu, is launching a new era of street art. And what started out with a crude scribble is set to evolve into something far more sophisticated and impressive: Carlo Ratti, director of the renowned MIT Senseable City Labs, plans to push this art form with a far more intricate system – and within the given legal framework.

Instead of a single drone, his “Paint by Drone” uses four of the flying high-tech miracles. Just like a regular printer, each of these applies one of the four CMYK colors. The entire process is controlled by an app: Artists simply upload their own design and “Paint by Drone” takes care of the rest. Sometime this year, Ratti plans to paint the first examples of his drone graffiti art on scaffolding covers in Berlin and Turin, also involving the public in the creative process.

Drones spraying graffiti onto a wall
Rotor-powered urban art: Drones are taking over.

Street art drones: curse or blessing?

David Speed of London-based mural service Graffiti Life is clearly excited by the potential this novel flying object suggests. “Drone graffiti is an exciting new development in the evolution of the art form. While some might say that having a ‘robot’ create graffiti diminishes the artwork – and while I obviously can’t see the future – I feel that, at least during my lifetime, hand-painted art will not disappear. The drone is not here to replace modern graffiti, it just opens the door for innovation and new possibilities in using technology to create art.”

At the same time, Speed’s work for Graffiti Life is all about actual results. “I use whatever method promises to deliver the best results,” he states. “So, if drones help me realize my vision, I will use them in the future.”

Within the street art scene, few protagonists actually doubt the usefulness of this new medium; most consider the spraying drone “simply a cool tool.” Katsu himself offers his own vision and explanation: “I have this small vision of me lying in bed – like in a video game – and sending out drones from my bedroom window that cover the entire city in tags and then return to my bedside.”

“Graffiti artists are rebellious by nature,” adds Speed. “Since rules do not apply, they are always searching for new ways to make their mark – from stickers and stencils to drones and, who knows, perhaps even graffiti in virtual space?”

street artists controlling the drone that is spraying graffiti
Artists control their visuals via app.

The bane of robotic art

Nobody wants to be called a Luddite, but behind closed doors, some people do voice their skepticism. Do robots and automation take away some of the genre’s romantic luster and artistic aura?

Urban artists have always had somethings of a superhero – or cartoon villain – mystique. As if carried by magic wings or eerie powers, they scale bridges and façades during the darkest night to leave the public marveling at their tags, pieces, and designs by early daybreak. Some, like Banksy, even seem to disappear into thin air straight after creating their ephemeral works. Doesn’t risk-free, sofa-based, and remote-controlled spraying violate the scene’s unwritten code of honor?

Another aspect – potential property damage – is even more problematic and an issue that can affect (and taint) the very best street art. So, an officially sanctioned, legal performance like the one planned by Carlo Ratti might be a better pilot project. Most of all, as with any technology or tool, it remains down to the user whether this technology’s use benefits or harms society.

In terms of flying artistic “warfare,” owners of large public works and transit authorities have actually beaten both Katsu and Carlo Ratti to the punch: German railroad company Deutsche Bahn has been operating an anti-graffiti drone fleet since 2013 to track illegal sprayers with thermal imaging cameras. The jury’s out, though, on whether they have also already developed (and deployed) an anti-drone drone to keep their walls and trains squeaky clean in this new era of airborne art.

Closeup of a pink drone above the street
Aerosol art high above street level.