DOHA, Qatar – With the reins in one hand and a whip in the other, the purple-jerseyed rider prodded a camel around the track. But this jockey wasn't the usual underfed boy. The jockey was a robot.
Under the watchful eyes of his Swiss developer and Qatari owners, the robot — dubbed Kamel (search) — rode a racing camel for 1.5 miles, reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour in a non-competitive trial run.
By 2007, rulers of this energy-rich emirate say all camel racers will be mechanical.
The developer, Alexandre Colot of the Swiss robotics firm K-Team (search), wasn't as impressed as the rest of the crowd.
"I wasn't surprised," Colot said, as he walked toward the camel to unstrap Kamel and put him in a box for the night. "I've seen him do that before, so to me, it's not something strange."
Camel racing (search) has deep roots in the traditions of Gulf Arabs and their survival in this barren and once poor and isolated land. Races are grueling contests of endurance and take place on oval courses as long as 10 kilometers. Betting is banned but lucrative purses are put forward by corporate or tribal sponsors.
Spurring the robots' development has been vehement condemnation from human rights groups of the sport's regular jockeys. Activists say there are about 40,000 boy jockeys, some as young as 4, who are either bought from their parents or kidnapped from their home countries and taken to the Gulf to ride. The boys live in bleak conditions and are underfed before races to keep their weight down.
In Qatar, ruling sheiks have responded to calls for banning the use of boy jockeys by embracing robots as the best solution.
Sheik Abdullah bin Saud, the Qatari official in charge of the project, said the plan is to keep developing the robot until it is ready to take over.
"Improve the speed, the weight, the aerodynamics, to reach the ultimate goal of completely phasing out children used as jockeys," Sheik Abdullah said.
The project began in January last year, when K-Team sent a group to study camel races in Doha.
"We came to Doha with only a digital camera," Colot said. "We took detailed shots of the jockeys riding the camels, to capture every possible movement and reaction by the jockeys that occurs during the race."
The result was a robot that receives commands from a remote control up to a half-mile away.
A camel handler follows the rider in a vehicle and uses a joystick on the laptop-sized remote to issue four instructions: forward, backward, sideways and whip action. The robot, in turn, uses those commands to drive the camel.
The 60-pound robot is also equipped with a global positioning system satellite beacon and shock absorbers for the rough ride.
To prevent camels from rejecting the robots, handlers spray their jerseys with traditional perfume used by trainers.
"It was important for us that the camel recognizes and accepts the robot, so we had to make him as human as possible," said Colot.
"We can't stop these races. They are part of our history and tradition, so we have tried to find an alternative," Sheik Abdullah said.
Race organizers plan to have 20 riding robots ready when racing season starts in October. Sheik Abdullah said plans are underway to set up an assembly plant, a maintenance center and a training institute for robot users.
Sheik Abdullah and Colot said camel racing enthusiasts were skeptical that robots could ride as well as boys, worrying that the machines would ruin the lucrative sport, where winners claim purses of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"We've proved that it works," said Colot. "It will take time, and we'll train some of them to use the robot by June."
The Swiss engineer said that initial results show that robots may soon become the preferred jockeys, not just a second-best alternative.
"We're 10 seconds slower than the fastest time recorded for a 5-kilometer race," he said.