You have heard of Qatar, but how well do you know the Middle Eastern country? More importantly, how well do you know its potential for robotics growth?
Qatar (locals pronounce it “kuh-TAR”) boasts the highest per-capita gross domestic product in the world, according to the CIA’s 2017 World Factbook. As of last year, the average person earned $124,000 annually.
The country has a land area smaller than the state of Connecticut, but it sits on the world’s third-largest (proven) natural gas reserves after Russia and Iran. The state provides electricity, water, healthcare, education, and more — for free — to a population that is 85% foreign.
If those facts don’t impress you, then this will: Qatar has a robotics industry that is gaining steam in healthcare, education, tourism, and more.
What makes the local robotics industry a “ripe” opportunity is that natural gas, which provides over 70% of the government’s revenue, is — like oil — falling in value. The government needs a new growth industry, and robotics may be the solution.
Sports and athletics
In 2005, while many of today’s robotics powers were still strategizing, Qatar was among the first to deploy robots in sports. It used a robot called “Kamel” as a jockey that whipped the camel to make it run faster.
In preparation for the 2022 World Cup, researchers in Qatar unveiled plans to create “robot clouds” that would be remotely controlled and positioned between the sun and football stadiums and would help cool the area, reported CNN.
Education and healthcare
Two British universities — the Imperial College of London and Oxford University — have worked to turn the peninsular nation into the “education and research hub” of the Middle East. Back in 2010, Imperial College partnered with the Qatar Foundation to open a robotic surgery center.
Also that year, students and professors at Carnegie Mellon University’s local campus deployed a robotic receptionist, or “roboceptionist,” named “Hala.” Its mission was to communicate in Arabic or American English and provide information to people, such as directions. Hala was also used to see how human-robot interactions occurred in a multicultural setting.
In 2016, Qatar’s Hamad General Hospital introduced two pharmacy robots that could process 1,200 prescriptions an hour. As these robots dispensed medicine, the pharmacists could dedicate more attention to customers.
For nearly 15 years, CMU has hosted “Botball,” part of its Botball Educational Robotics Program. It is focused on bringing high school students into the robotics world with competing teams from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Libya, Kuwait, and Qatar.
Similarly, the College of the North Atlantic — Qatar (CNA-Q) holds a robotics competition to help prepare students for the National Robot Olympiad of Qatar, a robotics competition from which the finalists progress to the World Robot Olympiad, which the country hosted in 2015.
The emphasis on local development has already begun to yield results. Qatar’s Ministry of Interior and Internal Security Force in March unveiled a homegrown security robot at the Hamad International Airport.
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Government and global partnerships
One of the reasons robotics is doing well is because of the “Qatar National Vision 2030.” This strategy seeks to transform the nation into a knowledge-based society, fuel new economic development, protect the environment, and more.
The Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) is intended to fuel this transformation. As of 2013, QNRF had 700 active projects and had provided $600 million in grants.
The QNRF’s initial grants included one to a researcher who wanted to develop 3D maps by attaching cameras to a robot and letting it determine what had changed in its environment.
In addition, the Qatar Science and Technology Park is the country’s first free-trade zone. It serves as a home for technology companies and is also an incubator for startups. Its investments in startups range from $500,000 to $3 million. This is the same park where the robotic surgery center is located.
As Qatar takes steps to develop the robotics industry domestically, it is also creating partnerships abroad. South Korea and Qatar have looked to expand their cooperation beyond construction. With a focus on South Korea bringing expertise in a range of areas, including nanotechnology and robotics, the two nations looked to collaborate further.
Is Qatar a robotics power in the making?
As Qatar pursues its National Vision 2030 and works to diversify its economy away from natural gas, robotics can come to the rescue. It could serve as an example to other Middle Eastern nations, such as the UAE, that are also looking to get away from monocultures based on petroleum.
The question is: Can Qatar build up its automation expertise fast enough to compete with regional powers such as Israel — let alone South Korea or the U.S.?
What is clear is that Qatar, a traditionally “hidden” country, has a robotics industry that is slowly coming to life. Perhaps it is a robotics power in the making.