London’s top iconic bionics


London leads the way in cutting-edge robotics in ways more ways than one. Here’s six in fact…

Until recently a robot served pints in London Bridge.  Yep, forget the 18th-century coach houses and cobbled streets, Cynthia’s Bar and Grill had its own android serving behind the bar. Cheap labour, I hear.

Alas, both Cynthia’s and the robot are no longer there. 

But London does still have a culture of robotics. A thriving one in fact, here’s LondonlovesBusiness.com’s top six iconic bionics.

1. Shadow Robot Company


One of the longest-running robotics companies in the UK, Shadow has pioneered robot development and claims to have built the world’s most advanced robot hand: The Shadow Dexterous Hand.

The Shadow Hand can make 24 movements, “allowing a direct mapping from a human to the robot”, facilitated by no fewer than 40 air muscles. Fancy your own? Shadow makes hands to order; a contract including development and support ranges from £40,000 to £150,000.

Still not impressed? In 2005 NASA placed an order.

Managing director Rich Walker believes that London isn’t as far behind Japan and the US as some might think. London research and development is world class, he says. We’re just “bad at taking the risks and we don’t follow through enough”.

You can see the Shadow Hand for yourself at this year’s TechWorld event at the ExCel.

2. The Natural History Museum


London has some of the best museums in the world and some world-class robots too. Since 1990 the Natural History Museum has enjoyed a partnership with Japanese animatronics makerKokoro and acts as the company’s agent.

While displaying some of Kokoro’s pioneering models in its permanent galleries, the museum sells the animatronic products across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

A major exhibition displaying animatronic dinosaurs just finished at the museum but some models can still be seen by appointment

Fancy getting your own animatronic made up? Visit the NHM website

3. MillenniumFX


Just outside the M25, this 11-year-old animatronics and prosthetics company supplies the giants of the small screen – from Doctor Who to Casualty to Top Gear – as well as major Hollywood blockbusters.

Company director Neill Gorton has been in the industry for 25 years and believes London is experiencing a renaissance of sorts: “The Eighties was the big time for animatronics because it was new and exciting, and then computers came in with CGI [computer-generated image] and everyone pronounced animatronics dead.

“They may make bigger but we do it weirder”

“But now the new directors who grew up with CGI have decided to turn to animatronics instead!”

And Gorton believes London is leading the way: “I’ve worked all over the world but we’re the best; we have such a diversity of ideas coming in, some of the best [animatronics]I’ve seen comes out of London – we’ve got a broader mind than what comes out of Hollywood.

“They may make bigger but we do it weirder.”

4. Betty Blue Eyes


 The West End’s latest offering has had rave reviews despite being a musical about a pig. In fact it’s the show’s animatronic porcine star that’s got reviewers thinking twice about that bacon sarnie.

Betty wasn’t created in London but was flown in from Melbourne. And she didn’t come cheap either at £100,000.

According to one newspaper article, she cost Sir Cameron Mackintosh – the show’s producer – more than what he paid to book Michael Crawford for The Phantom of the Opera.

5. London universities

In 1991 Imperial College London set a world first with the demonstration of robotic prostate surgery. Since then the university has have been breaking new ground exploring robotics in medicine. Its Mechatronics in Medicine Laboratory was set up in 1993 to research and develop mechatronic aids to surgery, and has since gained a worldwide reputation as a centre of excellence for medical robotic research.

Kings College and Queen Mary’s also have world leading research departments.

One course on offer at Imperial is Robotics which teaches students how to programme small mobile robots using the cutting-edge software, Lego Mindstorms NXT kits.

6. London’s robotics stars

It’s not just in labs and studios where robots can be found. London is home to some of the world’s most innovative animatronic makers including John Nolan, Gustav Hoegen and Josh Head, who have taken robotics and combined them with music, art and film. Thanks to them, robotics are showing up everywhere from London’s nightclubs to street art.

Even the city’s mice are getting involved.