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Robot hand helps Gospel Oak's Shadow Robot Company grab Queen's Award for Innovation

PUBLISHED: 09:00 27 April 2019 | UPDATED: 09:19 30 April 2019

Rich Walker from Shadow Robot Company in Gospel Oak, with his robot hand. Picture: Polly Hancock

Rich Walker from Shadow Robot Company in Gospel Oak, with his robot hand. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

Gospel Oak tech trailblazers Shadow Robot Company have landed a prestigious royal prize for their creation of a robotic hand.

Shadow Robot Companys robot hand. Picture: Polly HancockShadow Robot Companys robot hand. Picture: Polly Hancock

The Queen's Award is handed out to no more than 200 companies across the UK each year, divided into four categories, and Shadow has scooped up an “innovation” prize.

“The award was something we'd always heard of but we thought: 'That's for the big boys,'” explained managing director Rich Walker.

“But actually, we do fit the criteria and we are world-leading in our field. It's a real feather in our cap.”

The “shadow hand”, described by Wired magazine earlier this year as “a bit like the Terminator's hand when he rips off his skin, only less metallic,” might not look exactly like a human hand just yet – but carries out almost all of the same functions as one.

Designed with sensory fingertips and enough dexterity to pick up objects as small as a tennis ball, the hand can step in where human action could be dangerous.

“It turns out that there are lots of instances where you maybe want to put a person somewhere but it's risky or impossible – a nuclear site, for example,” Rich said.

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“There's an ongoing programme in the UK trying to make decommissioning safer, easier, faster, cheaper. This technology can help that by being controlled remotely. The cost of cleaning up our existing nuclear sites in the UK at the moment is well over £100bn. Anything that makes that job faster, cheaper and safer is important for all of us. That's why we think this a problem worth tackling.”

The company started in 1987 as just four people in an attic in Liverpool Road, Islington, with an interest in setting up robots for fun. Today its network spans countries from Spain to Bogota, including collaborations with American AI companies and Japanese airlines.

“One of the most exciting upcoming projects is one we're working on with a Japanese air company, ANA, who have a long-term vision to change the way people travel,” said Rich.

“They're competing in a crowded market, and so one day they thought – 'what about if we do something for those people who can't fly?' It turns out that 97 per cent of the world don't fly for one reason or another. That's a lot of people.

“This hand could potentially work as an avatar for a person to control in one location from another location across the world.”

The award will mean not just global recognition for the brand, but local kudos too – they can fly the official Queen's Award flag from their office.

“Apparently we're allowed to literally raise the flagpole,” said Rich. “We're talking to the landlord about it so we'll see what happens, but that will be fantastic recognition within the local community.

“We've never been the kind of business to get passing trade, because no one wakes up in the morning and thinks: 'I'll just buy a robot hand today.'”

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