The story of our Founder – Richard Greenhill
Jul 12, 2018
I started out by studying Photography at Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) – that’s where I met Sally, my wife. I met her on day one and thought ‘hmm she looks nice’. I got a Diploma in Photography, and that’s my only qualification. My passion, and Sally’s, was photojournalism, although there wasn’t really a chance to make a career in that field. Sally and I opted for advertising – bits of car engine photographed against a white background. When I was 19 I went to Paris and was lucky enough to get a job at the same publishing house as Elle magazine. I even assisted Helmut Newton whilst I was there – he taught me that you don’t have to have total control.
Sally and I got married, and after a few years we decided to come back to the UK, but before that we took a big trip, hoping to capture some new photojournalistic images. We bought an ex-army open (soft Top) swb Landrover and drove down through Europe, through Iran and Afghanistan to Nepal and Calcutta. It was such a great adventure! But it was a career mistake to move away from UK then come back. By the time we got home, we had no contacts anymore. So I ended up taking more pictures of perfume bottles. However, our photojournalism images started to take off, and our work was the cover feature in the Observer – 12 pages! We began to sell our images, and I gave up the advertising work (with which I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable).
I started a project to photograph my own life – on the grounds that, so far, photojournalism was all about middle class people “here” going off to photograph relatively undeveloped people “there”. I wanted a really automatic camera (if I was going to photograph myself and my life) and thought I should build my own autofocus camera. That was my first foray into creating technology I suppose. It’s funny, I took the camera I made to the editor of the British Journal of Photography (the industry guru) who told me that there was no call for cameras that focus automatically…
I made other things too – a remote control to take the images, a colour analyser – I’m always building gadgets. Then I got the opportunity to be the photographer on a 6 month voyage that recreated Sinbad’s trek to China. On this trip, often becalmed, with hours and days in limbo, I began to dream about the potential of “computers” (newly affordable) and (obviously!) Robots. I was inspired. I came home and I built a drawing machine that drew beautiful combinations of Sine waves. I didn’t know anything about electronics – I made it out of Meccano. I then joined a startup called Intergalactic Robots, which is where I met David Buckley. David designed a very good ‘Turtle’ to teach educational (Logo) programming. I just wanted to build a humanoid robot, but no-one else agreed. So I started to build it on my own in the attic.
I thought a humanoid robot would be good to do, because our whole environment is designed for humans. The human form is a design that’s been tried and tested for millions of years! I thought making a robot that could walk would be a relatively easy thing to do (much easier than, say a hand that could do the sort of complex operations human hands do), however I never wanted to use motors.
I wrote a little program that made a bit of bike tube inflate – I put a polythene bag in a net glove and filled it with air – it contracted! – my first ‘air muscle’. I spent £1000 trying to get a patent for it, only to find out someone in America already had already patented it. I also tried to make a shoulder that shrugged (I’m not sure if anyone’s actually done that even now…).
In 1986 I tried to set up a project to build a domestic robot. It only lasted a few months, then in November 1987, I tried again, getting 12 people to agree to work on it. In those days, there was nothing out there really except industrial robot arms. David Buckley agreed to join this group. We met every Wednesday evening. Sally would cook a huge vat of spaghetti and we’d work through the night. At the beginning we decided to work on building a biped. David drew up a design. He used a medical book to see where all the muscles should be attached. Then we started building it! We didn’t have money for anything, I took bits off old printers to make a sensor to detect how strongly the muscles were pulling. We were constantly ‘fire-fighting’ to keep it all going. I took the biped to a kids’ computer camp, and the kids there helped me build it. One particular whizz kid came up to me and asked to join the project – he was about 15/16 and was called Rich Walker (actually he was “the whizz kids’ whizz kid!”).
It was great fun going to those camps, two weeks every summer. It really helped to progress the biped. We entered the biped into the First Robot Olympics and tried to win by cheating – which didn’t work! The second time we entered, we won ‘Best Robot’, beating all the universities and other ‘proper places’. Shadow started getting a bit ‘famous’ as a hobby group – although it annoyed me that we still weren’t taken seriously.
So, we had this project group in my attic – people could do what they liked in the group, it was anarchic. We also built a robot using two oven trays on wheels that had a vision system. I invented a recognition system which projected stripes of light forward just above the ground. The robot drove around randomly looking for cups which we’d placed about. When it found a cup, it used the light-striper (as I called it) to work out the height, width and distance of the cup. It would say “That’s not my cup” or (eventually) “That’s my cup!”
The judges gave the speech system a prize, but just assumed the robot was being remote-controlled, so ignored the machine vision pattern recognition system (now you can buy such things for a hundred dollars – Kinect etc.)
I decided to call the robot group ‘Shadow’; I came up with it because I was being interviewed and they wanted to call us something – I originally thought of Lucifer, but the interviewer was really dubious about that (!) and suggested I might want to change the name. I liked Lucifer as it means ‘light-bearer’ – I wanted a name that played with light.
I suppose the next milestone for us was the appearance of cracks in the kitchen ceiling. So you know I had my workshop in my attic – I used to pick up so much stuff from skips and the like, I’d put it all in my attic. What with the weight of the equipment, the 12 of us working up there, and all the stuff I’d acquired, the ceiling below started to crack.
Around about the same time as this, two large batches of the photos in our photo library were lost by two big clients. It was devastating, so upsetting, however we were awarded substantial compensation. We were paid £750 for each transparency that was lost. We used the money to buy a house in Islington – which is where we put Shadow (and we are still there now!).
It was me and Rich, and Dave Buckley came in a lot too – we were spending a lot of time at the house in Islington, with Sally taking all the photographs as well as running The Sally and Richard Greenhill photo library – it was a constant drain. Annoyingly, Rich Walker went to the University of Cambridge for four years…but he came back after.
In 1997, a customer wanted to pay us £1000 to build a leg. To do so we had to be a registered company, so that’s what we did. We didn’t become a company to pay shareholders – it’s still not why we do it now. We’re involved with advancing robotics.
By 1997 we had a Humanoid robot (now in the Science Museum), but although it could stand, and recover its balance if you pushed it, we couldn’t get it to do more than a step. Rich was using Neural Nets to control it, but the forest of wires to the large number of analogue sensors and air valves continuously put up errors.
Then, to our horror in 1997, Honda brought out P2, a bipedal robot, which they had kept secret for 11 years. They beat us to it, in style! – we had hoped to be the first in the world to make one, but we weren’t (although we were the first in the Western Hemisphere.)
So I decided to make a Humanoid Hand instead, based on the dimensions of my own hand. I made it out of Maple (the same wood as the Biped, which we got from a skip at a kitchen furniture maker. I remember I had some trouble with the thumb. We managed to get it to it to pick up a pint of beer (smooth sided thin walled glass). I don’t think any other robot hand could do that for a long time after.
We’d go and find equipment and stuff from this underground car park in Camden. It was full of junk. Actually, whilst I was scavenging there I bumped into Hugo Elias. He was a 14 year old boy then, I recognised him because I knew his parents. He was a local kid. He started working with us too – then went to uni and came back to us again (he’s still here as a valued member of our R&D team).
So we were a small team – me, Rich, Hugo and there was Matthew too (again, he’s still here, another valued member of our illustrious R&D team!). I was fanatical about our robot hand being able to do things that a human hand could do.
After a few years we were showing our hand in Automatica, a big robotics conference/exhibition. The photo library at this time was getting pretty big, we were having 7-8 pictures published daily. So I wrote barcodes to label the transparencies and to generate invoices automatically. I wasn’t doing much photography at all, everything was shifting to be more about robotics. I was overdoing it really, and my health began to suffer. I was manic and suffered from anxiety. When I was 65 I wasn’t inventing anymore, I was just doing management for Shadow. Then Rich began to hold more responsibility – which was funny as I saw him as a tech guy, not a businessman – and now he’s famous for running the business! I’m pleased to be wrong about that one.
I then went to the Lake District, and periodically I go up there to relax – occasionally designing robotic bits and bobs. Progressively I became interested in ‘getting old’. How could robots look after old people? I believe robotics should be built into every home – which is why I wrote the proposal for modular robotics that became the CHIRON project, now my attention is on modular robotics for assistive care. My interest is a personal one – I have dementia – but the problems that it gives me actually help me to find new solutions to live happily with it, and I’m getting better.
I’ve got the perfect, happiest, nicest life, and perfect family too. Plus the photo library is still ticking along. Shadow is the most wonderful organisation ever, Rich is brilliant as MD. He’s kept the spirit perpetual here because of love. It’s vital for us to hang on to our ethos of kindness as we grow. Robots are fun, there is a feeling that they can change the world, and it’s really exciting to be a part of it. I’ve always thought robots could transform life on earth – there is limitless potential.
To see Richard and Sally Greenhill’s photography, have a look at their website here.