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 Space inspiration in quest to reveal enigma of pyramid

The robot built by Shaun Whitehead, based on principles he developed in his work at Leicester. Image: Shaun Whitehead.

Space inspiration in quest to reveal enigma of pyramid

Former University of Leicester space reseacher turns to exploring Egyptian mysteries

In the imaginations of millions of people across the world, the mysteries of space are only rivalled by the mysteries surrounding the Egyptian pyramids.

Both tantalise with glimpses of little-understood worlds that never quite seem to be within reach, at least until now.

In a surprising link between the two, a researcher has taken the principles he learned in the University of Leicester’s world renowned Space Research Centre and applied them to cross the divide, not of the Universe, but of more than 4,000 years of history.

The Djedi project was set up to develop a robot that could enter two mysterious shafts leading from the so-called ‘Queen’s Chamber’ of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, to try and find out what the shafts were for.

The mission manager, Shaun Whitehead, had worked for 13 years on space engineering projects at Leicester’s Space Research Centre, including the JET-X, XMM-EPIC, Beagle 2, XEUS and Swift missions, and currently collaborates with the Centre on the BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

In working on the Djedi project, however, his eyes are now focussing not upwards towards the stars but deep into the gloom of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, where the team has already carried out an initial survey at the end of May this year.

Just outside Cairo, the pyramid is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing. While thousands of tourists bend double to clamber up the low, steep passage that leads to the King’s Chamber, it is in the private ‘Queen’s Chamber’ that the joint Egyptian-international team of scientists are working.

In 1872 a British Engineer called Waynman Dixon discovered two shafts in the chamber, closed by a series of blocking stones. The shafts seem to disappear into the heights of the pyramid, but earlier robotic explorations in 1992 and 2002 were unable to discover what they are for and where they lead.

The Djedi project, set up by Dr Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, uses a robot and tools developed by the project team.

Shaun Whitehead explained: “Our objective was to do a complete measurement of one of the shafts and to check its orientation. It was very like designing instrumentation for space. It has to be light-weight and very highly engineered, and once it is deployed you can’t get to it to fix it, so it has to be right first time.

“Just like engineering complicated spacecraft, it’s also very important to know exactly what the scientists want to do and then work back to the engineering design.”

The robot includes a micro ‘snake camera’ rather like an endoscope, that can pass through small gaps and see in all directions; a miniature ultrasonic device to estimate the thickness and condition of stone walls; a ‘beetle’ robot that can fit through a 20mm hole; a precision compass and inclinometer; and a coring drill to get through the blocking stones along the shaft.

Though they still have to be interpreted, results so far have been intriguing. “ “It was brilliant,” Shaun Whitehead said “I was looking at somewhere nobody alive has seen before. Even at the time the pyramid was built the only people who would have seen into this area would have been very privileged.”

Shaun appreciates that the Djedi team is working where very few people in the world are allowed to go. He said: “You can’t help but marvel at how amazing the pyramid is. Entering it for the first time is a very strange experience, especially when you’ve got the place to yourself.

“The Queen’s Chamber has limestone walls with a niche about 8ft tall where perhaps a large statue once stood. Looking up you see a gabled roof with huge stone blocks above you, and on the walls are graffiti stretching back to Roman times.

“The only other features in the Queen’s Chamber are the two holes on the north and south sides, which are the shafts where we put our robot.

“Not many people are allowed to go in, so when you start to disturb the environment you get flakes of dust or salt falling from the ceiling and it smells like a newly plastered house because of the limestone walls. Everything echoes and sometimes you can hear tourists making the ascent to the King’s Chamber. It’s not a very comfortable place to work at first, but after a while it’s a bit like working in a laboratory clean room.”

While the team is excited about what they have achieved so far, they now have to sift through a lot of clues surrounding the purpose of the shafts and blocking stones, which need to be studied and interpreted. The plan is to carry out another exploration in September and a shorter concluding session in December.

“I feel we have a foot in the door and we have to continue to build technology that will help us explore further,” Shaun Whitehead said. “It’s a fantastic project to be involved in. When we leave the Cairo hotel in the morning I look at the pyramid, about 20 minutes’ walk away, and I think, ‘how many people get up in the morning and go to an office like that?’”

Further Information:

Djedi was the name of the magician consulted by the great Pharaoh Khufu in the planning of his pyramid.

The Djedi team, set up by Dr Zahi Hawass, is sponsored by the University of Leeds and supported by Dassault Systemes in France. Leading members include:

Dr Ng Tze Chuen (Hong Kong), the team founder, who has worked on the concept since 1992 and developed the Djedi concept based on his previous experience with space robotics.

Mr Shaun Whitehead (UK), Scoutek Founder of the UK involvement in the Djedi project; systems engineer and mission manager for the project.

Dr Robert Richardson (UK), Lecturer in Engineering Systems and Design, School of Mechanical Engineering, University of Leeds; manager of the Leeds/Manchester University team.

Mr Ron Grieve (Canada), Tekron Services, Canada. World expert in ultrasonic impact-echo measurements, responsible for assessing the thickness and condition of the blocking stones.

Other members of the international team with expertise in systems for Space, search and rescue, medical devices and inspection of stone structures include Andrew Pickering, Stephen Rhodes and Adrian Hildred.

The Djedi Team discuss their findings with Dr. Hawass (Photo: Meghan Strong). The Djedi Team, from left to right - Stephen Rhodes, Robert Richardson, Zahi Hawass, Shaun Whitehead, Adrian Hildred, David Keeling, Ron Grieve, Jeff Vale, TC Ng (Photo: Meghan Strong).

Above left: The Djedi Team discuss their findings with Dr. Hawass (Photo: Meghan Strong). Above right: The Djedi Team, from left to right - Stephen Rhodes, Robert Richardson, Zahi Hawass, Shaun Whitehead, Adrian Hildred, David Keeling, Ron Grieve, Jeff Vale, TC Ng (Photo: Meghan Strong).

Notes to Editors: Further details are available from Shaun Whitehead, email


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