The Djedi Pyramid Exploration Robot

The Djedi Pyramid Exploration Robot

For hundreds of years, adventurers including Arab potentates, Napoleon’s forces and the British military battered and penetrated the ancient Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure. Their methods were crude, usually involving brute force and no small amount of explosives. Despite the aggressive attacks, the pyramids gave up few of their secrets.

Then, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a new breed of explorer made their way to the magnificent edifice, the last remaining wonder of the world, the Great Pyramid at Giza. These men lovingly and methodically cleared rubble and debris from the heart of the monument and proceeded to carefully study and measure every last detail, in doing so revealing its extraordinary beauty and precision. Who were these men? What was their motivation? They too had treasure on their minds, but at a much more ethereal level; for most of them believed that time itself was encoded within the pyramid, and accurate measurements of the passageways and chambers would reveal the truth of the bible and even foretell the destiny of the world.

In the space age of the late 20th century, it was the turn of the scientists. The treasure they sought was data. Huge electronic machines were dragged up the steep, cramped passageways and installed in hot and airless rooms to measure cosmic rays or tiny changes in gravity – anything that might help to explain who built the pyramids, how and why, and perhaps most importantly, whether there are any secret chambers left to be discovered. The results were tantalizing but not conclusive.

In 1993, the first robotic seeker arrived.  Its target was the small, 20cm square shafts that had been discovered in the Queens Chamber of the pyramid in 1872 by English explorer Waynman Dixon.  The shafts were enigmatic – their entrances were hidden behind solid stone blocks and they climbed at an extremely steep angle into the dizzying and dark heights of the pyramid – a total climb of 13 stories high.

The slim, tank-like vehicle, created by Rudolf Gantenbrink, squeezed over sixty metres up one of the shafts, and was rewarded with the discovery of a beautifully polished, bright white stone “door”. The hopes, dreams and theories, orthodox and bizarre of many were pinned on what lay behind that door. However, after an extraordinary chapter of politics, power and High Court cases between the robot’s creator, the Egyptian antiquities authorities and world media, Gantenbrink was not allowed to send his robot to try to penetrate the stone barrier.

Hong Kong, 2002
Dr Ng Tze-chuen, called TC by everyone who knows him, is sitting glued to his television set in his flat in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, in the early hours of September 17th.

Alerted by the splash of publicity in the South China Morning Post, he had set his alarm clock early to witness a live event being watched by over a billion others around the globe. Before his eyes, a tiny robot, Pyramid Rover II, enters a small channel in the Queen’s chamber of the Great Pyramid and crawls 63m up it, at a steeply inclined angle, overcoming a variety of obstacles along the way. The excitement builds as the robot slowly approaches a mysterious blocking stone that is being referred to by the eager presenters as a ‘door’. Protruding from the stone are two intricate metallic-looking pins that appear to be handles. TC feels an electric tingle of excitement and anticipation as the robot pushes a drill through the blocking stone.

A marvellous micro camera then slowly progresses through this hole, and shows – thrillingly, but frustratingly – yet another ‘door’ some distance beyond the first!  Other than that, the camera reveals nothing, just the cryptic shadow of an anciently cracked stone block.  The robot can proceed no further, and the show quickly ends with just a few breathless comments from the presenters and archaeologists.

While the credits roll, TC feels an overwhelming urge to know more. As the weeks pass, while probing and drilling teeth in his day job as a dentist, he dreams of probing and drilling the blocking stones in the dark, narrow shafts. He also dreams of their copper pin fittings, which have a special significance in ancient Chinese culture. Only a robot can reach them, and it doesn’t look like Pyramid Rover II is going back. Luckily, TC is a man who knows something about technology, but most importantly he is someone who believes that if you have big dreams they can come true.

Shaun on the Giza plateau with the Great Pyramid in the background

TC needed help.  

I’d worked with him since his team at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University had been providing the corer/grinder tool for the Beagle 2 Mars lander, and one day he and his family took me to tea.  I listened, fascinated, as he told me his tale.  He’d become involved with the National University of Singapore, and had arranged to add a tool on the next robot that they planned to use to explore the shafts in the Great Pyramid.  The problem was, the Singapore leader was being awkward about this arrangement.  TC needed a go-between.  My own attempts to persuade the Singapore team fared no better, and so TC arranged for us to meet the iconic Zahi Hawass at the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, simply with the aim of getting him to persuade Singapore to agree to accept our sampling tool on their robot.

Long story short… I took some of our robotic equipment to that meeting, to demonstrate our capabilities.  Hawass liked it so much that he asked us if we could do the whole thing – main robot and sampling tools.  Of course we said yes!

But it was not as simple as that.  The Supreme Council of Antiquities were not going to let just anyone loose in the pyramid, and Singapore were not out of the running.  We actually spent years perfecting a robot that could climb the challenging shafts as gently as possible, as well as carrying various tools and cameras.  We were put into competion against Singapore, our robots virtually battling it out in the baking-hot stone replica shafts constructed on the Giza plateau, adjacent to the pyramids, for the right to explore the pyramid with our robot.  In the meantime, Hawass had named our robot Djedi, after the magician consulted by the pharaoh Khufu when planning the layout of the pyramid.  Hawass believes there is still something left to find in the pyramid.

The full engineering story of Djedi has been covered beautifully here.  I’m also in the process of writing about its technical development, archaeological significance, and most importantly the more personal aspects of searching for “wonderful things” in the most iconic structure on Earth..

The Djedi team at the University of Leeds

A key part of the story is Dr (now Professor) Rob Richardson.  TC and I could not do this on our own, even with my small business of Scoutek Ltd.  I approached lots of potential collaborators, and most were stone cold about the whole idea.  Rob was building search and rescue robot designs at the University of Manchester, and embraced the opportunity.  He and his team, including  the brilliant technicians Andy Pickering and Stephen Rhodes, rapidly swung into action to develop concepts.  Rob moved to the University of Leeds, along with Andy, and fortunately for us and Egyptology, continued the same great progress, leading to the discovery of just what was hidden in that small and mysterious chamber, so high up in the dark recesses of the Great Pyramid.

Generations of students at the University of Leeds have been part of the Djedi success story, via student projects and vacation work.  It has been a fantastic example of engineering evolution, and I am sure that it has helped those students to go on and have great careers.  The project has also led to a long term collaboration between myself, via Scoutek Ltd, and the University of Leeds, which has seen the development of around 30 student projects, one PhD and many spin-off applications.  All thanks to an eccentric Hong Kong dentist and his fascination with two tiny copper pins.

Scoutek and I managed the whole project, and carried out systems engineering as well as designing, building and procuring key rover components, described below:

Djedi snake camera – 8mm diameter

Snake camera

  • Resolution: Better than VGA
  • Technology: CCIQ II
  • Illumination: 6 off pico-LED
  • Range of movement: +/- 180° in pitch and yaw
  • Diameter: 8mm
  • Focus: 2-15cm

The camera has now been improved further, giving it more mobility – so it behaves as a true “snake”, as can be seen in this Djedi Snake Camera Video .

Bracing actuators – “MuscleJax”

The actuators that acts at the legs and feet of Djedi were originally commercial off-the-shelf devices.  We realised that they had limitations, for example they were prone to wear, especially when taking the lateral loads generated by Djedi as it is climbing steep inclines.

So we custom-built our “MuscleJax” micro linear actuators that can provide up to 5 kg force for pushing against the shaft walls.


Other components included:

  • Main electronics boards
  • Sonic surveyor
  • Micro beetle


-Shaun Whitehead