Robot jockeys ride camels in Abu Dhabi. (Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures)
The bodies of robot jockeys are made from power drills. The robots came into use in the 2000s, when child jockeys were banned from the sport. (Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures)
In Dubai, a camel owner and two of his robot jockeys—whips raised—appear ready to race. (Andrew Testa / Panos Pictures)

The Latest Sign That the Robot Uprising Is Nigh? Camel Racing

A centuries-old pastime in the United Arab Emirates gets a reboot

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Camel racing on the Arabian Peninsula dates to the seventh century, but not long ago the sport underwent a MacGyver-like upgrade: robot jockeys, retrofitted from cordless power drills and dressed in uniforms. British photojournalist Andrew Testa captured this race in Abu Dhabi. As the camels galloped at up to 40 miles per hour, he heard the whoosh of the robots’ remotely controlled whips, two-foot strips of plastic attached to the drills’ motor. The animals’ owners sped alongside in SUVs, muttering encouragement through two-way radios. Camel racing has a troubled past. Child slaves often served as jockeys until the UAE outlawed their use in 2002, which led to robots becoming the industry standard, and though some critics might object to the whips, defenders argue that the practice is no different from horse racing. Testa was drawn to the chance to capture a quirkier side of a region frequently seen through the prism of conflict. “It is a really bizarre spectacle,” he says.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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