A camel race with robotic riders took place on Monday in the United Arab Emirates, marking the start of a curious new Middle Eastern sporting event.
Ten robot riders took part in the inaugural race. They were pursued around the Al Wathba racing track in Abu Dubai by human operators carrying handheld radio units, in a convoy of sports utility vehicles.
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But the use of child jockeys has been condemned by human rights activists, who allege that jockeys - as young as four years of age - have in the past been kidnapped, kept in prison-like conditions and deliberately underfed for racing.
The robots were developed after the United Arab Emirates Camel Racing Association banned the use of jockeys under the age of 16 in March 2004. The age limit for jockeys was increased to 18 in July 2005.
The robot race was attended by UAE minister for presidential affairs, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who described it as a "tremendous success", adding that, "the coming phase will witness a new development in this indispensable sport in the UAE".
An unnamed Swiss company has reportedly been paid $1.3m to develop the robotic jockeys, which are sold for around $5500 each. The first trials involving the riders took place in April 2005.
The remote-controlled riders have mechanical legs for balancing or leaning and mechanical arms for pulling on their camel's reins.
Robert Richardson, a robotics expert at the University of Manchester, UK, says the design may be simple, but it could still have problems. "When you're connecting a robotic system to an animal, or a human, you have to be careful," he told New Scientist. He adds that a completely autonomous design could be even more hazardous.
Camel races are held at purpose-built tracks during the UAE’s winter months, between October and April. A racing festival is held in Al Wathba each year and attracts entrants from around the world.
Source: New Scientist