How a robotics engineer accidentally upended child labor practices in the Gulf
By ANDREW DECK, March 2020,

Human rights was the last thing on Esan Maruff's mind when his team assembled to build a camel-racing robot.

Before he found himself on the Al-Shahaniya racetrack on the outskirts of Doha, Esan Maruff had never seen a camel race. It was May 2005, and Maruff’s robotics team was on-site for a Qatar-funded research and development project — to make human jockeys obsolete by building a camel-racing robot. It was not a career pivot Maruff had seen coming. “The job was very much an accident,” he said. “I never applied. I never gave my resume to anyone.”

Looking back, he still seems shocked that his new job at a robotics lab dropped him into the middle of one of the region’s most persistent human rights violations: child trafficking.

Children have been groomed to ride camels in the Gulf States since the 1970s, in an endless pursuit for lighter-weight jockeys and faster race times. As camel racing evolved from a traditional Bedouin cultural event into a professional sports industry in the 1980s and ’90s, the demand for new jockeys bred a network of traffickers who bought young boys from debt-ridden families in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan to sell to stables in the Gulf. Racing injuries, physical abuse, inhumane living conditions, and deaths were all documented by human rights organizations in jockey camps, called ousbah, where children as young as three were held. By 2005, after mounting international pressure, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar had instituted enforceable bans prohibiting jockeys under the age of 18, but camel owners resisted. That’s when the Qatari government decided to fund a robotics intervention.

When the assignment for a camel-racing robot landed at the Robotics Academy of Qatar for Bright Inventions (RAQBI), human rights weren’t on the minds of its engineers. “The Qatar Development Bank was developing the robotics industry [by funding RAQBI]. We were thinking of this as a test project for our roboticists,” said Maruff, who was the head of IT and robotics on the project. An established Swiss engineering firm, K-Team, had already made early attempts at building an automated jockey, but camel owners disapproved of its heavy, human-sized prototype and its hefty price tag.

Instead of full automation or sleek design, Maruff says that RAQBI’s goal was getting people to actually use their robots in racing. Trainers rejected the robot’s initial humanoid design. “[They] did not want a human face on the robot,” said Maruff, explaining that Islamic law at times forbids the imitation of human forms, which is considered the work of God. The final RAQBI model miniaturized K-Team’s prototype, then removed its fake eyes and facial detailing, erasing any humanoid features.

RAQBI also quickly discovered camel racing tech didn’t require much engineering prowess. Camel owners told the research team that they didn’t need intelligent robots or high-spec hardware, but a simple, streamlined design. RAQBI robots were made by affixing a remote-controlled motorized whip to an aluminum frame. The remotes were repurposed automobile key fobs: press lock to hit the frontside of the camel and unlock to hit the back. The whip’s motor was stripped from a DEWALT 12V drill. A two-way radio speaker was also embedded in the robot, so trainers could speak to their camels, shouting commands from handheld receivers as they speed along the desert tracks in fleets of white SUVs.

Maruff says he’s proud of his team’s methodology — engineering rooted in simplification and an understanding of the local tradition — to research, study and adapt the product to what would be most accepted. All designs developed by the RAQBI team were affordable and easy to replicate; they even exposed the circuitry for curious imitators. “Any electronics technician can make this,” Maruff said. Within months, camel owners across the Gulf hired engineers to build their own version of RAQBI’s designs. “It was not just in Qatar, not just one team, but all over the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] over a short period of time,” he said. “It was amazing: we never expected that kind of reach.”

RAQBI’s robots did not eliminate child exploitation from the sport. In 2010, the nonprofit Anti-Slavery International documented the use of underage jockeys at a heritage festival in the UAE. Today, countries in North Africa that largely conduct races outside the professional circuit are only just beginning to swap out human jockeys. Egypt, for example, is planning to phase out child jockeys by the end of 2020. But over the past decade, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have cleaned up the image of a sport once tainted with human rights abuses — camel racing now has more established fandoms, professional analysts, and million-dollar winnings. Robot jockeys are now prevalent in professional leagues across the region, a credit to unrelenting advocacy work and the impact-driven engineering of RAQBI.

Maruff’s time studying the dynamics of camel jockeying was brief. His career since RAQBI took him far from robotics, into financial consulting and software development, from Doha to Chennai and back to Doha again. But he still loves to reminisce about his jockey days, work he considers part of his legacy.

“I’m very proud talking about this,” said the accidental father of modern camel racing robots. “I feel this is a lifetime achievement.” 

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