Robot camel jockeys. No, not on Tattooine - here. Welcome to the cutting edge of Arabian camel racing, where the iconic beasts are saddled with the world’s tiniest jockeys in an unrivaled display of innovation applied to a traditional sport.
The visually stunning spectable of these races was captured in a short profile by BBC Earth a couple years ago, viewable here.
These robot jockeys may be literally pint-sized, but they’re fully-featured. They can bark commands to the camel, transmitted over walky-talky from the camel’s owner nearby, and even slap the camel’s behind with a mechanical flail, also activated by remote-control.
This is no obscure rural hack: make no mistake, these robot jockeys are a big-budget, high-stakes production with racing prizes up to a million dollars. The New York Times wrote in a profile on the topic in a 2014 piece, Sprinting Over the Dirt, With a Robot on the Hump that the robots start at a base model cost of $500 and are built around DeWalt power drills as the energy source and motor.
The tradition of camel racing has very deep roots in the region. The Times’ Sam Borden and Hala Droubi wrote:
“Camel racing, in one form or another, has been part of Arabian culture for generations, with some historians tracing races to the seventh century. Camels are viewed as magnificent creatures here — there are even camel beauty pageants — and racing is seen as a unifying activity, a sport that brings together people of all backgrounds, whether royals or paupers, businessmen or laborers.”
The article argued that the arrival of the droids had been a very positive development in camel racing, which had traditionally used child jockeys - a practice that continues in some parts of the world including Mongolia and Indonesia - and helped the sport move beyond past scandals.
The specs of these robot jockeys have been evolving since they were first developed in the early aughts, when WIRED first wrote about the phenomenon. In a more recent follow up article, that magazine wrote that the robots had gone from “35 pounds of aluminum and plastic, with a 400-MHz processor running Linux and communicating at 2.4 GHz” to more lightweight devices, probably using microcontrollers like the Raspberry Pi.
Pared down, with a mechanical arm and speaker for transmitting the camel owner’s voice, sophisticated though they are, they still might be better seen as jockey by remote control than true robot jockeys. These relatively simple bots aren’t autonomous - or at least, not yet.