KINSHASA- 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 traffic. “The robot 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.
“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 road safety 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.