The World Robot Olympiad motors into the Middle East

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Media caption,

Philip Hampsheir reports

The aircraft hangar-sized room is filled with the sound of mechanical whirrs and excited children.

But it is not people being cheered for by the crowds as they play football, wrestle or solve Rubick's Cubes.

This is the World Robot Olympiad.

Almost 400 teams of high-school students travelled from as far afield as Russia, South Africa, Denmark and the Philippines to participate at the event in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

"The first international event was held in 2004 in Singapore," says Kerry Bailey, an event co-ordinator.

"This is the first time this event has been held outside the Far East."

But hosting the World Robot Olympiad in Abu Dhabi is not simply about expanding its footprint around the globe.

It is also about boosting robotics in the Middle East. And so far, it seems to be working.


Across all categories, 102 teams from the UAE are taking part. Add in those from Oman, Egypt, Turkey and the Gulf and more than a third of the competitors come from the Middle East.

Image caption,
This was the first World Robot Olympiad to be held outside the Far East

Hosting the event has been used as a spur to boost education in robotics.

The government of Abu Dhabi even gave every school in the Emirate specialised teacher training and boxes of Lego.

Gulf countries like the UAE are keen to diversify their economies away from oil and gas. A key part of that is changing what is taught in schools.

"Our goal is to increase students' creativity and problem solving as well as competencies in maths, science and engineering," says Najla Mohamed Alraway, programme manager at the Abu Dhabi Education Council.

"Teaching them robotics in classes does it all."

A better life

Teachers in the UAE support the move. They say it allows for teamwork and imagination.

"It's really important to teach robotics to children," says Alaa Al Juburi, deputy head teacher at Liwa International School.

"When they become good at problem solving in robotics, problem solving will become routine and culture in the child."

This year's Olympiad also has a theme: robots that make life better.

For this competition teams have entered everything from electric wheelchairs to scrambled egg makers to home security systems. One group even built rudimentary artificial limbs.

That has led several companies to send staff to wander around the event. They are scouting for both future talent and novel solutions to existing problems.

"The companies see this event as an investment in their future," Mr Bailey says.

"The event showcases technology skills in students. These children represent their future employees."

Building bricks

Salem Humaid Al Shamsi is head of sales for the region at security company Securetech.

Image caption,
One of the robots on display was able to solve the Rubik's Cube challenge

He is particularly impressed by a robot designed to rescue people trapped in earthquakes. It is built from Lego.

Mr Al Shamsi is looking for both elegant designs and people his firm might want to hire a few years down the line.

"We're looking to have 50% of our staff as technical staff in 2012," Mr Al Shamsi says.

"This event gives ambition to the children and hopefully lets them think of new technology."

Carving the future of the Middle East from robotics will be a challenge.

In most people's eyes, it is a field still associated with places like China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.

But by hosting the Olympiad, the Middle East is taking its first small steps towards become a new robotic giant.

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