When camel met robot

On dog tracks, the canine competitors have long chased mechanical rabbits. Now, in camel races, robot racers are taking their place in the saddle.

The changeover to mechanical jockeys isn't a purely scientific quest. Persian Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been stung by criticism about their use of boys, some as young as four and often kept in bleak conditions, to ride the camels.

Enter a Swiss robotics company called K-Team. It began studying the camel races early last year, and its racer-bot, called Kamel, has just completed a trial run on a dirt track in Doha, Qatar. The Kamel-camel duo hit speeds of 25 miles per hour in its 1.5-mile workout, according to the Associated Press.

The goal is for all camel racers to be mechanical by 2007. The next trial run is scheduled to take place May 28.

The 60-pound robot has hold of the reins, but it isn't the brains guiding the camel. A human handler prompts the racer via remote control, using a joystick to issue a quartet of instructions--forward, backward, sideways and whip action. The machinery also includes shock absorbers and a GPS system. To help keep the camels in their comfort zone, the robot's jersey is sprayed with perfume traditionally used by trainers, the AP said.

"It was important for us that the camel recognizes and accepts the robot, so we had to make him as human as possible," said K-Team's Alexandre Colot.

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by Iyaz Akhtar