Design

Traffic Robocops are Making Streets Safer in Congo

by Mark Hay

April 6, 2015
Gif by Addison Eaton

The DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) has become almost a byword for poverty and violence. Decades of endless warfare and generations of blatant corruption have left the nation torn, with no end to the country’s major problems in sight. At the center of all of this chaos is the capital of Kinshasa, Africa’s third largest metropolis, with almost nine million people living amidst decaying infrastructure. Although thankfully free of the most egregious brutality seen in the nation’s east, the city is still notorious for dirty cops, gridlock, and traffic deaths, among other perils. Yet although some equate the DRC with intractable dysfunction, there are many within the country fighting against the flow of conflict and corruption to repair their nation. In Kinshasa, a group of local engineers has come up with a particularly fantastical and unexpectedly practical solution to the city’s dangerous roads and unreliable traffic police: RoboTrafficCops.

These robotic traffic cops go far beyond some sort of abstract mechanization. We’re talking real humanoid, eight-foot-tall robots stationed at traffic intersections in the capital. Boxy and made of shiny aluminum, they look a bit like something ripped out of a 1950s sci-fi film. The automatons feature hand-mounted traffic lights with LED displays and cameras powered by inbuilt solar panels, swiveling their torsos around to address pedestrian and vehicular flows on major streets. Using their visual capabilities, they can take pictures of those they detect committing traffic violations and feed footage of cars or faces back to police stations, dispatching flesh-and-blood officers to collect fines from recorded offenders. 

The idea for the robots first came to a couple of female engineers at the Kinshasa Higher Institute of Applied Technique a few years back. (The group has since bonded together to form Women’s Technology, now a small magnet for Congolese female engineers, and has filed for a patent on their mechanical, traffic-directing bots.) One of the women, Thérèse Izay Kirongozi, told reporters she was motivated by the ease with which people could speed, run red lights, and so on, fleeing or bribing their way out of fines with impunity. She wanted something more reliable and incorruptible on the roads than mere fallible humans. Robots, she thought, could make sure that people were accountable to the rule of law and help the state to recoup much needed cash, potentially funding further infrastructure developments. Izay Kirongozi also claims she was especially concerned with pedestrian (and particularly child) safety on the capital’s newly refurbished, but poorly controlled traffic arteries.

In early 2013, the engineers got permission to mount two robots in central Kinshasa. They were simple machines, likely built with off-the-shelf parts, although no one outside the group has figured out exactly how the automatons operate yet. In a sense, these robots are just traffic lights, delivering reds and greens in novel form. But something about their appearance seems to be having an effect on Congolese drivers, with anecdotal accounts from the nation’s roadways claiming that many respect the signals the robots give. Perhaps the threat of more enforceable fines is behind any improvements in Kinshasa’s traffic situation. But the imposing stature and steely gaze of these shocking new enforcers could also very well be behind the alleged phenomenon.

The Congolese government has been so impressed with the robots that as of February they installed three more units for Kinshasa (Women’s Technology has dubbed them Kisanga, Mwaluke, and Tamuke) and sent five to the southeastern mining district of Katanga, at a cost of $27,500 per machine. These new bots will supposedly react more quickly than earlier models and feature speed radars. If the expansion works out, it will indicate that the success of the first two robots was about more than shock factor and novelty. Izay Kirongozi told the Agence France-Presse that she has already submitted a proposal to the country for purchasing an additional 30 traffic robots, which will hopefully pay for themselves in decreased accident costs and increased fines, and replace unreliable human cops on the cheap.

Jill Biden and others on a tour of Kinshasa Traffic Robot Lab. Photo by David Lienemann via Wikimedia Commons

Despite their alleged success in reducing traffic violations and increasing state income, some are still suspicious of Kinshasa’s traffic robots. Critics claim that the hype around the robots is distracting people from the nation’s dire need for more systematic infrastructure development—although the state has put up 10,000 new road signs on its 93,000 miles of asphalt over the past few years, they still have only 74 traffic lights for a national population of at least 67.5 million. Other local authorities fear that the robots sidestep the need for stronger civic institutions, like competent cops, leading the nation’s focus away from the root causes behind the ailments that the robots address. Those who have been fairly optimistic about the robots still worry about maintenance, as even the nation’s few regular traffic lights fail often.

It’s true that Kinshasa’s traffic robots aren’t a magic cure-all, set to revolutionize and permanently fix everything about the country’s roads. But in a city that has suffered up to 2,276 traffic deaths since 2007, anything that improves safety and frees up resources for further development is a welcome respite. So long as they are seen as an inventive, beautifully bizarre component in a larger infrastructure strategy, the robots ought to be considered an unmitigated good for the DRC. And if the women behind them have any say in the matter, they’ll be an unmitigated good for the world at large—the team has expressed dreams of seeing a traffic robot installed in New York someday.

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Traffic Robocops are Making Streets Safer in Congo