Robot camel jockeys

Like horse racing in many Western countries, camel racing is a popular sport in many Middle Eastern countries. Also like horse racing, jockeys are chosen for their small stature, so as to be less of a burden on the animal, and allow it to race more quickly. Unlike horse racing, the jockeys in camel races tend to be children, and they often suffer serious and even fatal injuries.

A BBC story has more information:

The risk of serious injury, disability and death is shockingly high among child jockeys in camel races in Gulf countries, a report shows.

Researchers in Qatar looked at 275 boys, many younger than nine and some as young as five, treated for camel racing injuries at a local hospital.

Seventeen of the boys treated between 1992 and 2003 were left with permanent disabilities and three died.

Although the sport using child riders, many of them trafficked from South Asia, has been banned in many countries, including Qatar since 2005, experts fear many children continue to be at risk.

If reports are accurate, at least 16,000 camels race at the 17 official tracks in the United Arab Emirates.

While the use of child jockeys for sport is now illegal in most places, the law is often ignored, but growing compliance threatens to doom the sport. What can fans to do to save their sport from the claws of crazy anti-childkilling human rights activists? As with most of life’s problems, robots are the answer.

The Wall Street Journal reports that fans of camel racing in the small, rich nation of Qatar have hired a Swiss firm to design them custom camel-racing robots, roughly the same size and weight of a small child.

The WSJ is subscription only, so I’ll reproduce just the directly robot related part of the article below.

“The first thing we knew we had to do was study the behavior of camels, understand their psychology,” Mr. Al-Thani says. After speaking with breeders, trainers, racers and psychologists, the committee summarized the relationship between the camel and jockey in a detailed report, noting crucial elements of camel behavior. Camels’ eyes, for example, roll back far enough to see directly behind them. This meant any robotic jockey would have to bear some resemblance to a human. Camels also have exceptional hearing and might be spooked by mechanical sounds, they determined.

The committee concluded that what was needed was a remotely controlled robot with a human form and voice. Early in 2004, K-Team was called in and offered the $1.37 million contract.

A K-Team delegation arrived in Doha with a battery of digital cameras, taking hundreds of pictures to document the subtle interaction between jockeys and their camels. They shot from every angle, in different race situations, to capture the movements and the reactions of both jockey and camel.

Back in Switzerland, it took months at the drawing board to adjust balance and shock-absorption and to protect against heat. Camels race at around 25 miles an hour — about 10 or 12 miles an hour slower than racehorses — in temperatures well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. “We conducted 100 hours of testing with 20 prototypes,” says Mr. Al-Thani.

The final product is a 59-pound, human-shaped droid. Mechanical arms and legs help it lean, balance and pull at the reins. The robots are fixed to the special camel saddle, equipped with straps, hooks and clips to keep them in place. They receive orders from trainers riding along behind via a remote-control system attached to the back of the camel.

Equipped with a global positioning system, cameras and microphones, the devices allow trainers to track the animal’s heart rate (170 to 172 beats per minute is a camel’s maximum), the sounds they make and even their facial expression. And the trainer can use a microphone to deliver such exhortations as the typical “haey hej’in!”

The camel trainer uses a joystick on a laptop-size control box to give commands: pulling back to tighten the reins and slow down the animal, forward to ease up on them and left and right for turns. The robot can also operate a whip, and a button on the joystick sends a signal to pull the reins sharply for an emergency stop.

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