What do you know about camel racing? Have you ever been to the races? Technology plays an important part in the sport… read on to learn more!
Did you know, there are upwards of 160,000 racing camels in the UAE alone? Or that the industry has grown from about 50,000 camels in 2014 to the astonishing figure now? If you live in the UAE, falconeering and camel racing are thrilling introductions to our gracious Emirati hosts and their culture.
The legendary camel race courses in Al Wathba in Abu Dhabi and Al Marmoum in Dubai start coming to life as the blazing hot summer starts turning into pleasant autumn mornings and evenings. The last races are usually in April. It’s a passion not just with Emiratis but with all desert people. There are two major events even in Australia – The Camel Cup in Alice Springs and The Boulia Desert Sands in Queensland but the events in Oz are actually run the old-fashioned, low-technology way, with human jockeys.
Camels are much loved for their nature, energy, loyalty and endurance. For the people of the desert – all the way from China, Mongolia, across the Thar in India and Pakistan, in the Gulf, Levant and Australia, these creatures are deeply valued. What many do not know is that camels are capable of speeds of up to 65 kilometers per hour. Hence they make for excellent racing.
In the last few years, the sport has emerged phenomenally. The traditional rivalry between the various Emirates and their influential families has turned into a multi-million dollar industry with massive increase in following and adoption of technology. In the process, it has overcome earlier accusations of exploitation of young children employed as jockeys. This is primarily due to the UAE’s action in banning child jockeys in 2002. A number of technological solutions have emerged in the sport – precisely controlled starting gates, remote monitoring, nutrition control and robot jockeys are just some of them. Robot jockeys in their current format are an invention from the UAE. The two-to-four kilogramme robot jockey replaced the earlier heavier version manufactured with Swiss collaboration. The UAE version includes two-way communication protocol, fits snugly on the camel and does not frighten or burden the racers. It costs a quarter of the original robot jockey, weighs less than a fifth and has been in use for the last 14 years. During a race, typically, owners and trainers in SUVs pace alongside the camels and control the robots remotely.
The rapidly developing interest in the sport has led to racing camels becoming highly prized assets. A good two-to-three year old racer will cost upwards of Dh300,000. The cognoscenti speak of champions that have changed hands at more than Dh30 million. The animals need to be trained and paced at optimum levels that gets the best out of them without injury.
From a balcony overlooking the Al Wathba racecourse, a young boy, Saeed Alnofeli, watched the camels race with a passion that grew stronger over time. A pair of binoculars lent to him by his father was his prized possession. He grew up, started his professional career with Du and was with the company from 2006 to 2011. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology, specialising in security and network from Zayed University in 2013, worked on a couple of new initiatives and went back to complete his master’s degree starting in 2013 and graduating in 2016 from the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which was set up in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His advisor at Masdar was Dr Hector H Hernandez. He worked on command-and-control systems for military tanks while at Emiraje Systems, a joint-venture between Emirates Advanced Investment (UAE) and Cassidian, a subsidiary of Airbus.
He decided to leverage his knowledge of military monitoring and sensing technology and apply it to his passion. He shared this vision with David Khayati, a colleague. Together they started up Maia Systems, a venture to manufacture an advanced camel racing robot jockey amongst other things. Alnofeli is CEO and Khayati is CTO. For the camel robot jockey system, they took inputs from owners and experts. The enhanced version not only did the mechanical job of managing the camel but also provided real time feedback and analysis of the animal’s vital biological information. It was able to pace and push the animal based on the data being streamed from the monitoring equipment. According to Alnofeli, although the new version was exactly what the owners and experts said that they wanted, the latter were hesitant to change.
Alnofeli and Khayati pivoted on the model, separating the monitoring hardware from the new robot-jockey version. They attached the monitoring equipment to the animals via a secure strap and provided the feed directly to owners and trainers via an app. Using this information, the camels could be paced at an optimal level without “burning” them out or causing severe setbacks to their well-being. Alnofeli was inspired by the 2011 sports movie Moneyball. A must watch for anyone into numbers and data and the impact on winning at sports. Over the last five years, the team has continuously improved the equipment, gathered data on camels and humans, developed relevant statistics and created an analytics base that can be used to optimise performance. In real time, performance potential versus the actual as well as the underlying standards can be monitored and acted upon. The team of Alnofeli and Khayati has filed for a patent at the Masdar Institute. This solution has been named Jamalytic or as Alnofeli calls it: “a Fitbit for camels.”
Jamalytic has been a prize-winning solution. It was selected as a winner in the Ibtikari 2.0 cohort of the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development. Further, the solution was a finalist at Pitch@Palace, the competition for startups sponsored by His Highness Prince Andrew of the United Kingdom. It has also been selected by the Hardware Venture Launchpad at StartAD, the entrepreneurship and innovation platform at the NYU AD. The team plans to productise this via manufacturing in China.
– The writer is founding partner at BridgeDFS, a bespoke digital financial services advisory firm (www.bridgeto.us). Views expressed are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.