x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

28. Robot camel jockey

To mark the nation's 40th anniversary, we feature 40 historic objects.

The robot jockey shown here is owned by Abdullah Salem Al Amri.
The robot jockey shown here is owned by Abdullah Salem Al Amri.
How do you bring centuries of tradition into the 21st century? The answer, at least with camel racing, is this curious mechanised mannequin.

A prototype robot jockey was successfully tested in April 2005 and was followed by the first race of its kind, involving 10 camels and held at Al Wathba racing track in Abu Dhabi in July.

It was watched by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Minister of Presidential Affairs, who called the race a "tremendous success", saying that "the coming phase will witness a new development in this indispensable sport in the UAE".

The robots had been developed after the UAE became the first country in the world to ban boys under 16 from riding racing camels in 2004, increasing the age limit to 18 the following year.

A Swiss company, K-Team, designed the first robot jockeys, making them as human-like as possible, reasoning that the camels would find this easier to adapt to.

In fact, the camels took fright at the early models, which had white faces. With other concerns that a too-human form might be construed as idolatry, the current design, shown here, was decided upon and is now made by a number of companies.

The robots typically have motorised arms for a whip, and reins, the former attached to an adapted power drill that rotates it at a speed controlled by the operator who follows in vehicles accompanying the speeding camels.

Some models can also monitor the camel's speed and even its heart rate. They incorporate a built-in saddle and can be customised with the owner's racing colours.