A robot jockey is commonly used on camels in camel racing as a replacement for human jockeys. Developed since 2004, the robotic jockeys are slowly phasing out the use of human jockeys, which in the case of camel racing in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, often employs small children who reportedly suffer repeated systemic human rights abuses. In response to international condemnation of such abuses, the nations of Qatar and the UAE have banned the use of human jockeys in favor of robots.
Use of humans in camel racing
Camel racing has been around for thousands of years. "The Sport of Sheiks" almost exclusively utilized small children, usually boys around the age of four, to ride and direct the camels. Often, the boys would be starved to be as light as possible. Many of the boys used for the races were often sold to race organizers or camel owners, and there was an active child slave trade for camel jockeys, involving victims of kidnapping or the children of destitute families who sold them into servitude.
Banning the use of child jockeys
The United Arab Emirates was the first to ban the use of children under 15 as jockeys in the popular local sport of camel racing when Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan announced the ban on July 29, 2002. The UAE issues penalties such as jail and banning for those found using children as jockeys.
Development and usage
The government of Qatar initiated development of the robots at the beginning of 2001. The first successful model was made in 2003 by Stanely in co-ordination with Rashid Ali Ibrahim from the Qatar Scientific Club. At the end of 2003, the design, with a revised analysis, was tendered to Swiss robotics firm K-Team. Initial problems faced by the design team, led by Alexandre Colot, included the fact that the camels were conditioned to the use of human jockeys. Early designs confused or frightened the camels. The designs were modified to include more human-like features, including a mannequin-like face, sunglasses, hats, racing silks and even traditional perfumes used by human jockeys. Other technical issues included the conditions that the robots and the computers would be put under: the high temperatures of a dusty desert environment along with a fast-moving and uneven ride. The first successful official race featuring robotic jockeys was conducted in Qatar by 2005. The robots are aluminum-framed with a "thorax" about the size of a large book and contain small hinged arms that control the whip and the reins. The robot can also monitor and transmit the speed and heart rate of the camel.
Due to their heavy weight (16 to 18 kg) and high cost, the Swiss product was ruled out and replaced by smaller, lighter (2 to 3 kg) and lower-priced models in Qatar and the UAE. The newer models were developed using RKE systems further enhanced with two-way radio controls and GSM mobile controls by HM Maruff and, later, a "Voice & Hit Command Robot with Shock Sensor" following further research at the RAQBI Centre.
- "Qatar to use robots as camel riders" by Tarek Al-Issawi of the Associated Press via USA Today, 2005-04-19.
- "Robots of Arabia" by Jim Lewis, Wired, Issue 13.11, November 2005.
- UAE enforces stringent steps to eradicate child jockeys (Wam), Khaleej Times, 24 May 2005
- Can robots ride camels? by Ian Sample, The Guardian, Thursday, 2005-04-14
- "Camel racing 'sport of sheiks'" by Eric Talmadge of the Associated Press via The San Angelo Standard-Times, 2006-12-07