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Traditional ways often suffer after the introduction of technology. But Bedouins and other nomadic peoples are adapting modern tech to preserve the customs of their ancestors from herding and hunting to sailing and sports.
Here are four ways tech is making an impact.
CELLPHONES AND MODERN COMMS
“Before I went to do research among the Egyptian Bedouin tribes, I had envisioned Bedouins as desert roamers living in tents and herding animals,” Lila Abu-Lughod says about her time with Bedouin groups along the northern edge of the Egyptian Western Desert in 1984. “Instead, I found that these same people who touted the joys of the desert lived in houses, wore wristwatches and plastic shoes, listened to radios and cassette players, and traveled in Toyota pickup trucks.”
Abu-Lughod is a professor of social science at Columbia University these days, but in 1984, she was working on her Ph.D. at Harvard University. She was living with the Awlad ‘Ali tribe, documenting her experiences living with Bedouin women and researching their poetry and storytelling. The most visible changes in their mode of life, she says, do not signal the disintegration of their culture or society.
Thirty-nine years later, Fatma Al-Kalin visited Marsa Matrouh, Egypt, and came to a similar conclusion. The researcher from Girls’ College Ain Shams University in Egypt noted most of the Bedouin she met had a cellphone and a social media account. More than three-quarters of the population surveyed owned a cellphone and spent “a lot” of time using the internet. Compared with the mostly male ownership of the Toyotas seen by Abu-Lughod, cellphones were equally distributed among men and women.
The proliferation of cheap communications technology has rapidly modernized the way of life for many Bedouin people, as have the cheap means to keep phones charged without a fixed power station — thanks to the falling cost of solar panels.
Beyond “the internet,” there are unique benefits to reap from the cellular revolution. Sharing information through informal social networks on the price of produce, weather patterns and grazing conditions helps families to maximize their production and profits while minimizing their risk, says Mark Hay, a freelance writer focusing on the culture and society of nomadic peoples.
“During a major drought in 2010, the Kenyan government itself took to using these networks to help nomadic Maasai tribes avoid disaster,” Hay explains. “Another Kenyan project gives mobile-phone holders access to hundreds of pro bono lawyers who can help nomads defend their land rights, using tools of a legal system that were once utterly inaccessible to most of them.
Another Kenyan project gives mobile-phone holders access to hundreds of pro bono lawyers who can help nomads defend their land rights.
– Mark Hay
“In Mongolia, the solar panels brought in to charge phones have granted nomads access to cheap and reliable solar power in the countryside to light their homes, eliminating the need for candles to create light,” Hay says. “This has reduced the risk of smoke-exposure-based diseases, extended the workday and freed up huge sums in family budgets to buy consumer goods. All from the proliferation of cellphones.”
Symbolic of the golden age of exploration, pearl diving and fishing, the dhow is the traditionally romantic Arabian seacraft undergoing a dramatic revival.
While the dhows employed nowadays may look the same as the vessels that linked the countries of the Arabian Gulf to the rest of the world through the centuries, advancements in materials mean they are now built of fiberglass instead of wood. A modern fiberglass boat can be produced twice as quickly as the traditional teak boat and requires half the maintenance. While a wooden dhow needs dry-docking every three months to be treated, a fiberglass one can go much longer at sea.
Lamination has replaced shark-liver oil, and epoxy is used instead of cotton, while masts and booms are made of carbon fiber. Sails are much lighter and stronger than they used to be, and radio and satellite navigation are standard accoutrements to the modern dhow sailor.
Across the Gulf, camel racing is a treasured sport. Controlling the camel as it thunders down the track is a remote-controlled robot jockey.
Since 2005, camel racing in the UAE and Qatar has required the use of robot jockeys rather than humans. Robots are much lighter and can’t be injured if they fall off.
Development began in the early 2000s, with Swiss company K-Team first employed to design a mannequin-like robot that wouldn’t spook the camels. Beyond the visual aspect, the robots also needed to withstand high desert temperatures and cope with a fast-moving and uneven ride. These robots were introduced to the sport but they came with disadvantages: They were relatively heavy, weighing in at 16-18 kilograms, and expensive.
A team at the Qatar Scientific Club improved the design, using aluminum frames to protect the circuit box, now reduced to the size of a large book. A rotor spins the jockey’s single arm, propelling the whip. The design is simple: It’s basically a power drill, with the drill bit replaced with a riding crop. The jockey is controlled remotely by the handler.
The robots also provide feedback to the camel handlers, measuring and transmitting biological signals in real-time throughout the race.
Esan Maruff was head of IT and robotics on the Robotics Academy of Qatar for Bright Inventions (RAQBI) in 2005. His team was also tasked with developing robotic jockeys but found that camel-racing technology didn’t need to be complicated.
“Instead of full automation or a sleek design, the camel owners wanted a simple, streamlined robot. It didn’t need to be intelligent or high-spec,” Maruff says. The final RAQBI model miniaturized the K-Team design and repurposed car key fobs for remote controls. It also weighs just 2 kilograms.
“Any electronics technician can make this. Our methodology here was engineering rooted in simplification and an understanding of the local tradition. Within months, our design was being copied across the Gulf. It was amazing. We never expected that kind of reach.”
FALCONRY DRONES (AND NOT-DRONES)
For thousands of years, the Bedouin people across the Arabian Peninsula practiced falconry as an important form of hunting in a resource-scarce land. While resources are now plentiful for modern Emiratis, the sport remains popular.
Falcons require training to hunt in partnership with humans — they must be taught to fly high and swoop for their prey, a challenge for a human decidedly floor-bound. For help, modern falconers have turned to the drone.
The best falconry drone should be able to mimic the bird’s speed and flight pattern.
– Paul Posea
Easy to fly and control thanks to advanced stabilization and GPS technology, modern drones are also sturdy enough to withstand the impact of a falcon seizing the lure.
Ideally, the drone needs enough battery for plenty of practicing and stability for training under diverse wind conditions. That’s it.
Paul Posea tests drones for a living. As the designers of the robot jockey found, Posea recommends simplicity in a drone designed for falconry.
“Some manufacturers of UAVs exclusively used for falconry have too many gimmicks,” he said. “They try to adopt a more ‘bird-like’ appearance. Others use folding wings, V-twincopter designs, and others just don’t help with falconry. The best falconry drone should be able to mimic the bird’s speed and flight pattern. It should be versatile, not gimmicky.”
Nick Fox of Wingbeat Ltd. disagrees. Instead of training falcons to catch prey with assists from drones, Wingbeat creates drones that the falcon can actually catch — drones with a decidedly bird-like appearance. His design has had particular success in the Middle East, where prey suitable for the hunt is in short supply. The houbara bustard is the most prestigious game bird in the region, but its population has nosedived.
“The end result is they haven’t got anything to hunt,” Fox says. “Our Robara model has been specifically designed as prey for hunting falcons. Through years of experiments, it was clear we needed a lure that looked the same as the real prey, behaved the same, had similar flight-performance characteristics, was controllable at all times, could fly high and freely in the sky, was safe to catch, could withstand repeated attacks, and could be mass-produced at an economical price.”
A tall order.
The Robara looks and flies like a houbara. Made from expanded polypropylene, the design resembles flapping wings, but it is much more resilient, with parts that can be easily replaced if broken. Although technically not a drone, more a remote-control helicopter since handlers fly it by eye, rather than videofeed from the drone cameras, the design is popular among falconers in the Middle East.
Peter Bergh went in a different direction. The Dubai-based falconer also wanted a drone that could push falcons to the limits of their speed and agility, and he also wanted his birds to be able to catch it. His may not look like a bustard, but it’s definitely a drone. His BerghWing also enables falconers to analyze flight data, which can be used to find areas of improvement for their training.
In this project, we will … create a houbara robot that can travel freely in the houbara habitats, to perform behavior observations and interaction tasks related to houbara conservation
– Lakmal Senevirtane
Powered by a single motor resembling a desk fan atop a stealth bomber, the Berghwing has just three auto features: launch into wind, return to home, and loiter mode. Everything else is between trainer and falcon.
Technology isn’t just helping train falcons, however. Researchers at Khalifa University and the Abu Dhabi-based International Fund for Houbara Conservation are looking at using robotics and AI to preserve houbara bustards, which are traditionally used to train falcons but have become endangered by habitat destruction and illegal hunting.
The idea is to use the technology to study the birds in the wild.
“In this project, we will exploit the synergies between IFHC and KU to create a houbara robot that can travel freely in the houbara habitats, to perform behavior observations and interaction tasks related to houbara conservation,” Lakmal Seneviratne, director of Khalifa University’s Center for Autonomous Robotic Systems, tells KUST Review.