Kinshasa co-op hopes to conquer the world with traffic robots

Feb 27, 2014 by Marc Jourdier
A traffic robot cop is seen on Triomphal boulevard in Kinshasa, at the crossing of Asosa, Huileries and Patrice Lubumba streets, on January 22, 2014

Can giant robots with a deep voice and massive arms be the answer to easing traffic chaos in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo?

A small cooperative, which developed the novel solution and is testing two robots at key intersections, thinks so—and wants to promote the concept across the country, Africa and the world.

Initial feedback is positive, from both the public and officials.

"God bless those who invented it," said taxi bus driver Franck Mavuzi stuck in . "The is good."

Like many African capitals, Kinshasa, a city of 10 million people, has a reputation for chaotic driving and huge traffic jams. Tricolour traffic lights are rare, many cars are old and battered and not all drivers are mindful of the highway code.

And traffic police, who earn minimal salaries, are often accused of extorting money from motorists.

"When the robot stops the traffic you can see that everybody stops and the pedestrians can cross without a problem," said taxi driver Mavuzi.

"And the traffic police bother us too much. Let's leave robots to do the job," he said.

The first model, which towers 2.5 metres (eight feet) tall, was deployed last June at the busy Lumumba Boulevard in the central Limete district.

"Drivers, you should make way for pedestrians," it booms, raising one arm and lowering another while flashing red and green lights signal cars to stop or carry on.

A traffic robot cop is seen on Triomphal boulevard in Kinshasa, at the crossing of Asosa, Huileries and Patrice Lubumba streets, on January 22, 2014

"We began with this one, which is simply there to offer safe passage" to pedestrians, said Therese Ir Izay Kirongozi, who founded Women's Technology to provide employment for Congolese women with engineering degrees.

Her seven-member team—which despite the name includes four men—develops the robots in a small workshop with peeling walls and rudimentary equipment.

In October, a more sophisticated model designed to control traffic flow was deployed at a junction in front of parliament.

Beneath a solar panel providing power, it swivels its torso. A green light on its breastplate turns red while it raises an arm, also fitted with lights—mimicking a real-live traffic policeman stopping one line of traffic and letting another through.

"There are many robots in the world, but a robot handling and traffic control, that's truly 'Made in Congo'," Kirongozi said.

"We must sell our expertise to other countries, as well as central Africa, and why not the United States, Europe and Asia," she said, hoping the project can create more jobs in the vast DR Congo where development has been hampered by repeated warfare, notably in the restive east.

'600 dangerous intersections'

Part of the team is due to show off the creation at international trade fairs in Canada and Switzerland in April.

A traffic robot costs about 15,000 dollars (10,000 euros) to build, Kirongozi said.

Her own restaurant and leisure firm, Planete J, is currently covering costs but she hopes the robots will eventually turn a profit.

"This is a positive thing ... in the business of road safety," said Val Manga, head of the National Road Safety Commission. "We need to multiply these intelligent robots to instal them at various intersections in the towns and urban agglomerations of our country."

The solar panels that power the robots could prove a major asset in a city where whole districts still lack electrical power. Made of aluminium, the robots are designed to resist a harsh equatorial climate with high temperatures, humidity and massive downpours.

A sophisticated electronic detection system tells them when pedestrians are waiting to cross a street. Cameras built into its eyes and its shoulders provide constant video footage of .

"When the robot captures images, they are sent over the Internet to a centre where they are stored and could be used to prosecute people who have committed offences," said video surveillance expert Claude Diasuka who is part of the project.

For the moment, all data belongs to Women's Technology. But pointing to money raked in by Western countries for driving offences, Kirongozi said such a system here could guarantee earnings for communities that want to invest in the robots.

In Kinshasa alone, "we have identified 600 dangerous intersections and complicated places" where robots could be put to work, she said.

Explore further: Walk, but stay safe: tips for pedestrians

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User comments : 7

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Osiris1
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
Look out world, this nation has arrived. Cooool! Love it.
ScottyB
not rated yet Feb 27, 2014
Isnt that just a weird traffic light?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2014
Isnt that just a weird traffic light?

My thought exactly (though the adjective that first sprang to my mind was 'overly expensive')

...unless they sell an option that upgrades it to shoot lasers out of its eyes at traffic offenders. Now THAT would surely be an export "Made in Congo".
Mike_Massen
1 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2014
Is there an intrinsic psychological message from the ethos which "inspired" the development here that, traffic control means height, authority & risk of "cruel & unusual" punishment but, not necessarily in that order... ?
krundoloss
1 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2014
I'm sure everyone will attack this comment, but here goes.

This is just further evidence that Africans in general have a tendency to be short-sighted. Behaving in traffic benefits everyone, and to ignore that fact is short sighted. Sure you can zoom through an intersection and get to your destination faster, but what if everyone does that? What if you hit a child? What if someone hit YOUR child? But no, they don't think like that. They do the easy thing, the thing that is right in front of them.

It reminds me of articles I have read, in which they describe building bridges to allow for foreign aid to be trucked to a remote area in Africa. The people in the area would take apart the bridge and use the materials for building huts, etc. If they were not so short sighted they would realized that if they just let the people build the bridge they would get much more resources than simple building materials.
0rison
not rated yet Feb 28, 2014
kochevnik
5 / 5 (1) Feb 28, 2014
I@krundoloss This is just further evidence that Africans in general have a tendency to be short-sighted.
Try being wet/cold/starving/hungry/chronically ill/unsheltered/overheated/wartorn and tell me you haven't become myopic after a year