Giant solar-powered robocops signal changing times in Kinshasa

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the forces of law and order in its sprawling capital, Kinshasa, have recruited some unusual new officers: three giant aluminium robots fitted with rotating chests, surveillance cameras and flashing lights. 

Their job is to regulate traffic in areas such as Lumumba and Triomphal that become gridlocked during rush hours.

Kinshasa used to be a totally disorganised city, now the infrastructure is slowly being improved. It’s a vibrant city now– Agathe Maupin, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs

The solar-powered robots (pictured) arrived at their posts just last week, joining three prototypes installed in 2013. They raise and bend their arms to stop vehicles or let others pass, and are also programmed to speak, indicating to pedestrians when they can cross the road.

Sophisticated sensors tell them when pedestrians are waiting to cross a street. Cameras built into their eyes and shoulders provide constant footage of traffic that is sent by Internet to a centre where it is stored, and could be used to prosecute people who have committed offences.

They were designed by a Congolese association of female engineers called Women’s Technology, using systems developed in the DRC. Each costs $27,500. Thérèse Izay, who ran the project for Women’s Technology, told Agence France Press (AFP) that the invention would make it more difficult for motorists in Kinshasa to get away with traffic violations.

‘Like in serious countries’

"In our city someone can commit an offence and run away and say that no one saw him," she said. "But now, day or night, we’ll be able to see him in real time and he will pay his fine like in all the serious countries of the world."

The new robots "react much more quickly" than the older models, she said. "The electronic components work much better now than the ones from the first generation."

The robots fill a gap in Kinshasa because traffic lights are rare and many drivers take scant notice of the highway code. There is also an issue with traffic police, who earn low salaries and are often accused of extorting money from motorists.

General Celestin Kanyama, chief of Kinshasa’s police force, said the robocops were a welcome addition in a city where 2,276 people have died in traffic accidents since 2007. "These robots will be an important asset for the police," he told AFP.

Cell-phone revolution

Commentators have hailed the robots as a sign that Kinshasa and other cities in Africa that rank low in development tables are acquiring a new civic identity and political voice. 

Oladiran Bello, the head of the Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told GCR: "Kinshasa today is not the Kinshasa of the wartime DRC in 2007 – it’s a city that’s on the move. It’s not often that you’ll be talking about Kinshasa as a trailblazer, but the attempt to control traffic with these robotic devices that not only turn the light red but actually place a barrier in the road to prevent drivers violating the right of way is one case." 

He said that despite the DRC’s lack of basic infrastructure, and a per-capita GDP of just $655, an infrastructural revolution has already taken place – based on the cell phone. He said people are connecting and demanding ground-up change.

"I’m optimistic because you are starting to see people demanding accountability from the city administrations, councils being voted in or out on the basis of their performance, or their service delivery," he said. "It’s piecemeal, it’s one step at a time and it’s change from the ground up."

Spontaneous organisation

Agathe Maupin, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, told CGR that the growth of spontaneous organisation began once Kinshasa’s 10 million population had recovered from the effects of the Congolese war.  

"Once things started working better you could see more politicised movements and you could see the population organising and civil society groups becoming much more active," she said. 

"Kinshasa used to be a totally disorganised city, now the infrastructure is slowly being improved: the road from the airport used to be very, very bad and now it’s been repaved. It’s a vibrant city now." 

The unofficial task of the robots is to be a visible embodiment of that new spirit. And at the same time they are embodiments of Congolese technological success: Izay said she had submitted a proposal for the authorities to purchase 30 more robots to watch over the country’s highways, and five are already on their way to Katanga province, in the south-east of the country.

Photograph: An off-duty traffic robot is introduced to American diplomats by Thérèse Izay, the president of Women’s Technology (Wikimedia Commons)

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