Wake Forest sophomore Timothy Lee blended art and science with his creation of a robotic painting arm. Using a paintbrush and canvas, it can replicate the lines and shapes made by a surgeon with a scalpel. The arm could one day help doctors in practicing complex, robot-assisted surgeries without actually being in an operating room.

Lee says that painting and surgery have more in common than initially meets the eye. A painter must be nimble and precise with his brushstrokes much like a surgeon must be nimble and precise with a scalpel.

“When you are dissecting a part of the human body, you have to be 100% perfect,” says Lee. “If you think about painting something like the Mona Lisa, you have to be perfect with your brush.”

Supported by a grant from the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URECA) Center, Lee teamed up with Craig Hamilton, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center to work on the arm. The invention took an artistic turn when he began to teach it how to paint.

“It is a lot harder than you might think,” says Lee. “After weeks of programming, I eventually got to the point where the robot could paint shapes and lines in a particular color.”

Lee says that from there, it was relatively easy to train the robot to paint something like a sunset or a house without any input from a human operator. He subsequently began to teach the robot to paint lines and shapes corresponding to locations of human organs. According to Lee, the goal was to get the robot to replicate the lines and shapes made by a surgeon with a scalpel all on its own.

Today, a human operator controls surgical robots; they don’t perform procedures autonomously. Lee’s robot may never work in an operating room, but it and other similar types could eventually help researchers design fully autonomous robotic surgeons.

In addition to teaching the robot to paint autonomously, Lee also explored using the robot as a training tool for surgeons who need practice operating a da Vinci surgical arm.