Shadow's goal is to produce a multi-functional robot that can be guided, trained and programmed to carry out useful tasks for people with disabilities. These functions could include fetching tissues, books or other items, picking up a telephone or collecting food from the kitchen. The technology the company has used to build its "helping hand" is called "air muscles," giving the robotic arm some functionality similar to human hands.
"In the future, we hope that the people will be able to ask the robot to do things like getting a glass of water," said Hugo Elias, one of the engineers helping to build the robot. "This would mean that the robot could go into the kitchen, find a glass, turn on the faucet, fill the glass and bring it to the person," he said.
Elias admits that such a complicated task is still as far as 5 or 10 years away, but the company hopes to have a working prototype that can perform simpler tasks in the next 18 months. This first prototype would be controlled through a wireless handset, similar to the interface used to drive remote controlled cars. Later models could have a voice interface, cameras, and artificial intelligence to let the arm cook, clean and perform other basic domestic tasks.
"When we ask people if they'd be interested in something like this, they say 'Yes.'" Elias claimed. "They don't say 'I don't know' or 'Maybe' they say 'Yes, we are very interested.' A lot of people have to rely on others to help them with these kinds of tasks."
The company has already constructed the arm portion of the robot and all that remains is to build the base that would allow it to move and the software that would run the machine. The company estimates that early models would retail for around STG10,000, Elias said. "Certainly people spend that much on a car, so we think they would pay that much for one of these," he added.
The Shadow Robot Company is a group of inventors working towards the long-term goal of producing a useful humanoid robot. Managing Director Richard Greenhill has been working in the robotics field since 1981 and in 1987 he set up the Shadow Robot Project where a group of enthusiasts would meet once a week to build a bipedal robot.
In 1997, the Shadow Robot Company was established as a company carrying out robotic research and prototyping. Since then the company has received a few contracts to build robots, including devices for the BBC's "Tomorrow's World" and for a Scandinavian toy manufacturer. The firm currently employs 5 on a full time basis and until now has been privately funded.
The new funding for Shadow came from the Lottery supported National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in the form of an Invention and Innovation award, in exchange for a stake in the company.