Camels in the road

The Israeli desert is riddled with the remains of ancient structures that once surrounded waterholes for the convoys of camels and their Nabatean tradesmen. Ancient sources testify of groups of up to 10,000 camels and riders who twice a year would traverse the desert from Yemen, up through the Arabian Peninsula, then head West across the Negev Desert to the coast of the Mediterranean. From there they would load their silks, frankincense and myrrh onto ships that set sail to the West bringing the luxuries of the East. 

In times gone by, camels were to transport what the Metro is to Europe. They were something you could simply not do without. No wonder then, that over the years, the camel became iconic in the Middle East. But it is an image that is hard to shake off. Until today, some people who have never been to Israel, still envisage our country as one of solely desert where transportation is the lonely camel. 

This leads to an interesting phenomenon of tourism in Israel. It is a common sight to see in the middle of our desert, tourists getting out of their bus or car and taking photos of a sign with a warning: “Beware of Camels in the road.” The road sign serves as a novelty to the visitor, but to the locals it is more than that, because this hardy mammal with its novelty face, flirtatious eyelids and oversized leather-tongue, is a real threat to every driver in the desert. 

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 camels in the Negev and Judean wilderness, most of which are owned by Bedouin nomads. Because the camel is dependent on seasonal rains for pasture, they and their shepherds are always on the move. Their path is unpredictable. Thus, every year the Israeli police receive about 1,000 reports of incidents that involve camels crossing the road and causing accidents, tragically some of which are fatal. 

It was a problem that needed solving and to make it happen, the iconic ancient camel and the innovation of the start-up nation came together to provide a solution. Bedouin Israeli, Ayman El-Sayed and Jewish Israeli Yoav Ludmer, teamed up to invent a solar-powered camel collar that transmits the location of the animal to a designated modest network. The network then alerts drivers of the camels nearby. It is an entrepreneurial and ingenious GPS solution. 

The technology can reach anywhere in the desert but because the Negev and Judean wildernesses are vast and mostly void of communication networks – (hence little mobile phone reception as most frustrated Israelis will say) the collars transmit relatively little information.  But solar power is the optimum solution to this problem of minimal reception, because alerting drivers of camels does not require the same amount of data as say a video clip would, which would need a very substantial network. Solar power needs minimal data and it also means that the collars, which are also put on flocks of sheep and goats, do not need maintenance. 

The men have come up with a brilliant innovation and yet they are also thinking ahead. It could very well be that their idea will appeal to the “giants,” the likes of Google Maps and Waze. Without a doubt, their solution reminds us all of arguably the most successful Israeli startup ever: Mobileye – an invention which not only changed the way people drive, it also saved thousands of lives. 

It is no surprise then that this dynamic duo of Jew and Arab who have mastered technology to save the lives of people and animals too, have caught the eye of many.