Science behind the photo #52

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Camel racing has been the Arabian Peninsula’s prided (and lucrative) pastime for thousands of years. It’s been called ‘the sport of sheikhs’; there are few spectators and no cameras – simply an arena where wealthy men gather to pit one camel against another.

Traditionally, the jockeys were four year old boys, trained and employed to race the camels in the 45 °C heat. But after increased pressure from human rights activists, the use of child jockeys was abolished.

Now, the tall, gangly mammals hurtle gracelessly along the track egged on by robots.

The Qatari government was first to produce camel-racing robots. They contacted K-Team, a Swiss robotics company, who sent two zoologists, ten engineers and a designer to the Arabian Peninsula. There were three main problems to solve: the shock the robots had to withstand as the camels raced at over 60 km/h, the unforgiving desert conditions and the camel’s reaction to the robots.

Initial test runs were less than ideal. Unused to robots, the camels became scared and often ran in the wrong direction. Thus later designs were made more human. The jockeys now possess a ‘head’ and a ‘thorax’, and have two ‘arms’ to bear the whip and control the reins. The thorax contains a processor, four microcontrollers and a sound board, all sitting on top of shock absorbers.

During the race, trainers speed alongside their camels in Land Rovers, armed with a joystick and buttons. These are used to manoeuvre the camel, control the force of the whip and observe the camel’s speed and heart rate. Trainers can also communicate to their camel through a microphone; their commands are amplified through a speaker hooked to the camel’s ear.

With the robot’s weight whittled down to 3kg, camels have never raced faster. So for now it looks like they are here to stay.

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