THE HAND uses its fingernails to thread a needle, unscrews the top off a juice box, and picks up a ripe tomato without smushing it. Most humans can do this, but this is a robot hand made of metals, plastics, and electronics and controlled by a data glove attached to a computer. The Shadow Robot Company builds five to ten of these a year for customers from the Ministry of Defence to Chinese researchers.
In a practiced routine, Rich Walker, Shadow Robot's managing director, leans over and points at it for the camera. He's not sure why no one else has made a robot hand with fingernails, which seemed obviously important for fine work. This particular model has a socket instead of an index fingertip: it's for a customer planning to insert a proprietary sensor.
"You would think that robots had to be bipeds," says Walker. "But no one is yet making money out of those." It's true: today's moving robots all have wheeled bases. "What does a biped do? It walks – but you still need the rest of the system. If the rest is complicated by having to balance, it makes it harder to do all those other things." A prime example, albeit a fictional one: Star Wars' C3PO. Although it walks its hands are non-functional, rendering it physically useless in almost every situation.
You might also think that the longest-running robotics organisation would be Japanese or American and based at a university or major technology company. Instead, it's this small British company hidden by a North London storefront so undistinguished that repeat visitors walk right past it.
In 1982, when photographer Richard Greenhill saw the first programmable personal computers, he realised that they would make robots possible. Seized by the vision of a general-purpose robot that could bring him a nice cup of tea, in the classic style of an English eccentric, he has spent much of his time since trying to make his vision real with anyone interested in helping.
With no degrees and no funding, for many years Greenhill struggled to get the project taken seriously while more "credible" academic and corporate robotics projects came and went.
Greenhill's earliest work was on building a biped, since the best-adapted body shape for human spaces is something like a human one. To that end, he designed the air muscle, which stretches and compressed like a human one.
But Walker, who first met Greenhill as a Derbyshire teenager preparing to go to Cambridge and who took over running the company in 1998, recognised that hands were a more manageable – and more saleable – proposition. The shift, which builds on the air muscles and other technology Greenhill created, has turned the project into a sustainable business. Greenhill himself spends his time pacing the Lake District and thinking up new approaches.
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