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Terrible Traffic? Call In the 7-Foot-Tall RoboCops

22 Apr 2018 5:40 pm
By Gabriele Steinhauser 

KINSHASA, Congo -- Traffic in this African megacity is a daily death-defying battle between humans and robots. Sometimes the robots lose.

Kinshasa and other cities in Congo rolled out traffic robots in recent years to try to manage some of the world's most chaotic intersections. Equipped with red-and-green lights and movable arms to direct vehicles, this small brigade of tin men watches over thoroughfares with six or more lanes, where cars, trucks and motorcycles skirmish for right of way.

But the 7-foot-tall humanoids, which backers say are more intuitive than traffic lights, aren't invincible.

One -- whom its builders call Thamuk -- sustained injuries to its legs and chest when a car rammed into his concrete pedestal. The bespectacled robot was awaiting repairs at the lab of his creator, Thérèse Izay-Kirongozi. Thamuk's torso had been disconnected from his lower extremities and was now resting on two Coca-Cola crates, ready to be rewired to restore movement to his waist.

Down the hall, also sliced in two, sat Didier, one of Mrs. Izay-Kirongozi's earliest specimens, awaiting a new deployment near Kinshasa's international airport. "He had the worst accident we've ever seen. It was really fatal," the engineer said. "He was 4 years old."

Mrs. Izay-Kirongozi's team of 10 designers and engineers nurse the metal creatures back to health when they fall victim to hit-and-run accidents. "They're super easy to understand," she said. "When he's pointing his arms your way, you know you can go. When he's pointing the other way, you have to stop."

A few glitches still need to be worked out. The robots are powered by solar panels, but on cloudy days, the panels don't always produce enough energy to keep them operational. They also don't work at night.

Some of the robots are equipped with speakers to shout commands at passersby. Roaring motors and blasting horns often drown out directions.

And while the robots have cameras in their eyes, chest or crotch to capture real-time images of road infractions, Congo lacks a centralized electronic database for vehicle registrations.

Still, Kinshasa's motorists are pleased that the machines have, at least partially, taken over the job of humans. "They don't want money," said Moise Ntumba, leaning out of the window of his minibus taxi, as his colleague shouted the names of coming stops to potential passengers. "The robots are doing their job correctly."

Traffic is infamous in this sprawling jungle capital of 12 million on the Congo River. The minibus taxis -- known as "Spirits of Life" or "Spirits of Death" depending on their road-worthiness -- chase each other on potholed streets that a downpour can quickly turn into grimy rivulets. At rush hour, cars caught in traffic jams jump curbs and roll over sidewalks to get ahead. The few regular traffic lights are often disabled by power cuts.

The U.S. State Department warns that Congo's poorly trained drivers tend to show "indifference...toward the safety of pedestrians and cyclists," while "roadside hoodlums" haunt its streets at night. The World Health Organization estimates that the rate of annual road deaths in the vast, conflict-torn central African nation is the fourth highest in the world, behind Thailand, Malawi and Liberia, and more than three times that of the U.S.

The robots are a "perfect metaphor for contemporary Congo," where few citizens have access to basic government services, said Bruno Verbergt, director of public services at the Royal Africa Museum in Belgium. "This kind of workaround is how people survive." The museum, located just outside Brussels, bought the latest of Mrs. Izay-Kirongozi's creations, a female-looking robot called Moseka, which means "girl" in the local Lingala language, for its permanent collection.

"There's still work here," said Mrs. Izay-Kirongozi. She hopes the robots will eventually become moneymakers for local governments by allowing them to collect traffic fines electronically. "People always tell me that I think too fast for my time," she said.

So far, Mrs. Izay-Kirongozi has sold 18 traffic robots for between $15,000 and $25,000 apiece to municipalities in Congo. She still pays for their maintenance out of her own pocket at her lab, which is tucked behind a rundown amusement park owned by her family on the outskirts of Kinshasa.

Cadet Mbambi, the lab's design chief, said he tries to give each robot a different expression and accessories and believes that their human shape lends them more authority over unruly drivers. "We are changing the faces, because we are also not all the same," he said.

The first version of Moseka -- sporting black braids, hoop earrings and, in contrast to her shimmering brothers, a red metal skirt -- conducts traffic at Kinshasa's Nelson Mandela roundabout, a four-way intersection framed by supermarket billboards, construction fences and the concrete skeleton of an unfinished building.

"Her light is very bright, so even when you're far away you can see her, " said Raymond Mawete, sitting in a dilapidated sedan on the side of the road. Mr. Mawete said he couldn't comment on how the robots compare to regular traffic lights. "I've never been to the United States," he said, "so I don't know these traffic lights you're talking about."

Mrs. Izay-Kirongozi said she was inspired to build the traffic robots after repeatedly witnessing grisly accidents on her way to work. Merely refashioning regular traffic lights seemed too simple. "For us, the robots are an innovation," she said. She added she isn't restricting them to human figures: "Why not build a dog at some point?"

She hopes the daily encounter with her robots will encourage young Congolese to study new technologies and build human capital in an economy that survives mostly on the export of raw materials -- including cobalt and other minerals that power electric cars and mobile phones developed in the West.

One part of the population is strongly in favor of the robots. "He's a joy for us traffic police because it is a chance for us to rest," said Sergeant Commissar Joseph Kalabanga, pointing to the robot stationed outside Congo's parliament, as an impatient truck pressed into oncoming traffic. "It's dangerous work."

Instead of standing in the middle of the road, where they used to direct traffic, Sergeant Kalabanga and several of his colleagues were inspecting drivers from each side of the intersection -- to catch those ignoring the robot's commands. "If the police aren't there they do what they want," he said.

Just then, a motorized rickshaw blasted past the robot's red light, followed by a black hatchback with missing windows, one of its passenger's legs in white sneakers dangling out of the opened trunk.

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at gabriele.steinhauser@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 22, 2018 13:40 ET (17:40 GMT)

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