There is something odd about the jockeys at camel races in the Middle East this year. They are not the young, enslaved boys used for decades. In fact, some are not alive at all. In Washington, VOA's Amy Serry reports on a new generation of camel jockeys: Robots.
Pressure from human rights groups has led to a ban on the use of young children as camel jockeys in the Middle East. But government officials in Qatar tried something different. In early 2004, they hired a Swiss robotics corporation called K-Team to build mechanical jockeys. Trial races involving 10 robotic riders were held this July and they will be used in regular races when the camel racing season begins in October. Project leader Alexandre Colot says creating the robots was quite a challenge.
"It's completely a new development we have done for this project," Mr. Colot says. "There is very hot temperature, a lot of humidity, sand, and very high shocks and acceleration, because we are on top of a camel which is quite a very fast animal, running around 45 kilometers per hour. So we have completely developed something with a human shape, except for the suspension, which is used from a mountain bike."
Human riders have no suspension at all. They often fall from their precarious perches, and many break bones. But injuries are only a part of the suffering these children endure. Boys as young as two are kidnapped from neighboring countries to become jockeys. Pakistani human rights activist Ansar Burney says they are treated as slaves.
"It's like they are living in Hell," Mr. Burney says. "These children were about two and a half, three, to seven years old, working for 17, 18 hours! If they are a little bit lazy or if they will try to sleep, they will give them electric shock. They were not getting any good food, just three biscuits a day so that they could not gain weight. One cannot imagine their miseries and agonies."
With the help of the United Nation's Children's Fund, many of the boys are being taken home and given a real education. A different sort of training camels is now in store for their replacements. The older men must learn to use remote controls. Mr. Colot says they direct the robot's movements and can even transmit their voices through a speaker.
"The user is directly in the car, following the race, and it has a simple remote control. You have up to 20, 25 camels during the race," Mr. Colot says. "There are lots of cars of course, this another race, a car race, following the camel race."
The robots show great promise, but Mr. Burney is cautious. He said previous laws banning children from the races have been poorly enforced.
"It's a good idea, if they are going to implement it," Mr. Burney says. "The problem is the implementation, because earlier, in the UAE [United Arab Emirates], in 2003, they announced that no child under the age of 15 will sit on a camel as a child camel jockey. But you can find so many underage children working there. So this time, we would like to see the implementation of the law, and if they are really sincere in bringing robots instead of children, then this is something great and I will feel success in my life."
The robot jockeys, too, are experiencing success. During the trial races in July, one of them matched the fastest time set by a human rider.