A brief history of Alan

Last Updated: 30 Nov 2016
Each year, our new cohort of industrial placement students put their heads together and come up with ideas for games and exhibits. It was from one of these ideas that Alan, the GCHQ robot, was born.

GCHQ works to encourage young people to take an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) as these are subjects that are also of interest to us. Although not all our posts require STEM skills, many of our technical roles do.  

As well as a network of STEM ambassadors who work with local schools, GCHQ takes part in various Science Festivals and events throughout the country to bring STEM to life. 


A specially designed RC car with cameras on the front and special wheels that can move sideways
©GCHQ 2016


Early in 2016 Alan began life rather inauspiciously as just ‘the robot from project CRAB’ (Cool Robot and Box). He was later christened in homage to Alan Turing, the father of computing and code breaker at Bletchley Park, the forerunner to GCHQ.

He was designed and built to be driven around a three-tiered maze.  A drone racing headset gives the person in charge a vision of the world from Alan’s point of view, thanks to the cameras that make up his eyes.  Our Director, Robert Hannigan, tried the headset out whilst visiting our stand at the Cheltenham Science Festival.  


Robert Hannigan is seated, wearing a headset, and holding a controller
©GCHQ 2016


Alan also travelled to this year’s Royal International Air Tattoo where he took a brief trip to Mars courtesy of Lockheed Martin’s green screen.


Our Mirror Maze robot Alan virtually on Mars
©GCHQ 2016 / background image ©NASA/JPL


Throughout his life Alan has undergone some plastic surgery and has sported a few different looks as the students improved the design of the 3D-printed chassis.  The configuration of his components has also been honed.

On board, Alan has two Arduinos with motor shields each controlling a pair of his striking omnidirectional wheels. To receive directions, he uses the ZigBee protocol, commonly used in home automation.  This protocol talks to the computer which interprets the players input from a PS4 controller into values for each motor. The video is transmitted via analogue RF to the headset.


Alan the Robot
©GCHQ 2016


Alan was retired from active duty at the end of 2016.  He enjoyed his life on the road but grew tired of living out of a suitcase. He now spends his days roaming around GCHQ’s Cheltenham headquarters building and helping out the GCHQ Twitter team in his spare time.