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Shaun Whitehead: The Djedi Master

Katia Moskvitch

Credit: Peter Searle
Credit: Peter Searle

“Mechanical Engineering 1st – Guardian league table 2018,” reads a big blue sign adorning a modern grey building in central Leeds.

“It’s not very discreet, is it?” laughs a young man with slick brown hair and trendy jeans. He’s George Mills, a PhD student here at Leeds University. Contrary to appearances, he’s not doing a PhD in fashion, but mechatronics.

As Mills leads me into a small lab, densely packed with robots of all sizes and colours, he’s joined by a few other students, both postgrads and undergrads. They all work on different projects, but have two things in common. One, they are all men. Two, they all admire a tall blond guy in khaki trousers. That’s Shaun Whitehead.

Whitehead, 50, is an independent researcher and founder of a firm called Scoutek. Throughout his career he has been involved in projects ranging from archaeological treasure hunts using precision engineering to building the Beagle 2 Mars lander and developing engineering solutions to fight crime. But he refuses to be cloistered away in his lab. Whatever project he works on, he always tries to get young people excited about engineering and push them to produce incredible results. “He brings crazy ideas to life,” says Muhammad Azam Bin Mohd Sharif, a mechanical engineering undergraduate student from Malaysia. “I think he’s really one of a kind.”

One of Whitehead’s inventions is the Djedi robot, not named after a similar-sounding group of warriors in the Star Wars movies, but after an Egyptian magician who advised Pharaoh Khufu during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. A decade ago, the little bot generated a media frenzy when it crawled deep into the Great Pyramid searching for hidden chambers – and even found some peculiar writing on one of the secret doors.

The project stalled during the political turmoil of the Arab Spring, and for now the cat-sized Djedi hibernates in the lab, protected by a tunnel-like glass structure, waiting for another go. “The beauty of something like Djedi is that it’s a rather subtle way to get people excited about engineering,” says Whitehead. “There’s a huge global interest in Egyptology, especially related to the mysteries of the pyramids, and the coolness is increased by adding in robotics.”

Hundreds of thousands of people watched the robot’s adventures on YouTube or came to open days and exhibitions. “I have personally had the pleasure of talking to hundreds of people directly about Djedi,” says Whitehead, as he carefully lifts the bot. He’s so tender with it, I almost expect the machine to purr.

PhD student George Mills 3D-printed a crawling bot that can be used for search and rescue (Credit: Peter Searle)

George Mills and his 3D-printed crawling robot (Credit: P. Searle)

A more recent project concerns his ThumbSats – tiny satellites the size of a square teabag. Whitehead is set to send them to space early next year, first on Rocket Lab’s Electron and then on an Ariane launch vehicle. Each satellite will carry individual science experiments for about two months, before burning up in the atmosphere (see more on page 6).

Whitehead is proud of them, but says he’s even prouder of ThumbNet, a sister project that collects data from fast-moving satellites. It’s a global network of internet-linked ‘ground stations’ – free receivers operated by volunteers. “We’ve had volunteer schools and organisations from all corners of the globe,” says Whitehead.

Crazy ideas

A more offbeat endeavour is his collaboration with French artist Anilore Banon, who wants to launch a sculpture to the Moon. The piece of art, 1.2m in diameter and weighing 1kg, is supposed to hitch a ride with the first of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competitors. Banon hopes that her project unites “people across the seven continents”. For Whitehead, it’s about uniting engineering and art.

Banon’s previous projects took art to the edge of space and even the International Space Station. “We’re serious about this,” says Whitehead. For the Moon mission, the idea is “to collect at least one million human handprints and have them reproduced on the sculpture. Many people who are giving their handprints have wonderful stories to tell, and often we get families together – grandparents with grandchildren. They will be represented together on the Moon.”

But beyond the unusual projects, what makes Whitehead so popular with students? “Shaun always tells us his crazy stories about his robotic escapades,” says Mills, as he demonstrates a soap-sized plastic robot made on the department’s giant 3D printer. Whitehead isn’t Mills’ PhD supervisor, but works closely with him. “He always talks to us about the next big thing, where we need to push and where we need to go,” says Mills, as he uses a video games controller to make the machine crawl forward. The bot looks like a little creature scurrying for food at the shore.

Whitehead is especially proud of the intrepid Djedi bot that explored the narrow pathways of the Great Pyramid of Giza (Credit: Peter Searle)

Whitehead's team at Leeds University (Credit: P. Searle)

Indeed, there’s a sea connection, says Mills; the bot was designed to operate on HMS Warrior, once the world’s fastest, largest and most powerful warship, powered by sail and steam. The robot was supposed to survey Warrior’s decks. “There’s only a very small gap between the decking and the metal superstructure, but that’s what we specialise in,” says Whitehead. Together with Mills, he used remote cameras to carry out the inspection, but thought that it would be more efficient to use a small crawling robot. So Mills 3D-printed one and fitted it with a battery.

Sadly, the robot was never used, because its first generation had to be tethered, so couldn’t go very far. In the end, it was decided to simply use a remote camera under the ship. Mills has now upgraded the bot, making it wireless and more powerful. “It can be used for search and rescue, and as a walking robot it can go over bumpy surfaces. And it can be scaled up,” he says.

The next big thing

Whitehead got into engineering the way so many others do – by being curious and tinkering with things. “When I was a kid, I wanted to go to space. The only way I could do that was by designing my own rocket,” he laughs, turning a ThumbSat in his hand. Apart from his many projects, he works with schools and gives talks about engineering. Here in the UK, school children don’t learn much about engineering, so Whitehead believes that it is crucial to speak to them, so that they get involved.

Elsewhere, engineering seems to be more popular. In Malaysia and across Asia, says Sharif, people have as much respect for engineers as for doctors. “Everyone wants to be one or the other,” he says.

Another young man in the Leeds robotics lab, former student Earle Jamieson, who was part of the original team that built the Djedi, agrees. “People think that engineering is about nuts and bolts, but it isn’t,” he says. “It’s about looking at a bigger picture and solving problems that nobody else can really solve.”

Professor of Engineering at Leeds University, Shaun Whitehead seen here with is team of students and assistants (Credit: Peter Searle)

(Credit: P. Searle)

And that’s what Whitehead is trying to do: to change perceptions. “It’s not just the engineering in itself that is necessarily a fantastic thing to do, but it’s more the places engineering can take you. There are a lot of adventures to be had in engineering,” he says. “For example, not many people know they can explore the Great Pyramid through engineering.”

Inspiring young minds

More engineers, he argues, should speak to school kids to get them excited about the profession. “Perhaps something to consider for future issues of PE,” he chuckles.

As the day at Leeds draws to a close, Whitehead shakes his head, his smile fading. One issue he’s not too happy about is the lack of girls in engineering – especially in the UK. Over the past 10 years, he has mentored students on more than 30 masters and PhD projects at Leeds, but only two of those who took part were girls.

Elsewhere in Europe, he says, the proportion of female engineers is “refreshingly” higher. “The female engineers that I have worked with have been just as competent as men. So I wonder if we are missing some great talent because the system isn’t quite right to encourage them. I’m very optimistic for the future, though, because I’ve been impressed by the current generation of school kids.”

 

This profile forms part of our new series, Engineering Heroes, which looks at the careers of engineers nominated by you – the readers of PE.

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