Emirati women engineering bright future at robotics institute

The Khalifa University centre has a higher proportion of women in the traditionally male-dominated field than at many universities in the US and UK.

Maha Al Ajmi demonstrates her robotic project for use in retrieving samples from search-and-rescue scenarios. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
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ABU DHABI // A senior scientist at Khalifa University says the increasing number of women moving into science and technology means the institution is leading the way in engineering and the field of robotics.

Robotics institute director Dr Lakmal Seneviratne said the UAE is beating the UK and US in attracting women into disciplines that were traditionally male preserves.

Dr Seneviratne said: “At King’s College in London, where I worked, there were only about 10 per cent [of engineering students who were female] so that’s one of the positives here.

“In the UK and US, women’s participation in engineering education has been low, ranging from about 10 per cent some years ago to about 15 to 20 per cent now. At KU, we have a much higher proportion of women studying engineering – about 50 per cent – and this is reflected in robotics.”

Professor Tod Laursen, the university’s president, said there are several reasons for the trend.

“The engineering profession in general holds a lot of prestige in the UAE and we find that the families of our female students are very highly supportive and proud of their daughters, wives, siblings studying these subjects,” he said.

“I think this prestige factor is more prevalent here than in much of the West. The leadership of the country, for decades now, has been very emphatic about the contribution women can make, economically and socially, as members of the workforce. I think the perception of real opportunities in technical sectors for young women studying engineering is hugely motivating.”

A rising number of role models, such as the university’s Dr Fatima Taher, the first Emirati PhD in engineering, is also a factor, Prof Laursen added.

Hind Al Tair is another of the Emirati women at the laboratory. She is trying to develop a search and rescue robot that not only relies on human instruction but can autonomously react in situations according to an database of scenarios it is programmed to prepare for.

The 28-year-old Emirati, from RAK, studying her doctorate, said: “Despite the fact that robots have reached a high level of autonomy in recent years, the need for human element in certain situations is still essential, especially in search and rescue operations. The human extends the robot’s capabilities beyond what they are capable of with current technologies.”

She said the project will fill a gap, with much of the technology used now being around for more than a decade.

“While current robotic devices are able to navigate, locate and map search and rescue areas, some interventions require a high degree of dexterity and information exchange that requires cooperation between the human and robots,” Ms Al Tair said.

She hopes the robot will be autonomous enough to make decisions quickly and save lives. “The communication process, instructions, clarification, can be time-consuming. You can teach the robot to understand the environment,” she said.

“I want the robots to have some kind of intelligence to take and share decisions.”

The project is about one or two years off testing but the current stage is modelling the decision-making engine, which will provide both the robots and humans with actions to do at each stage of an operation.

Ms Al Tair said the high prevelance of women at the robotics institute has surprised many. “It is a manly job but today Emirati woman are judges, lawyers, ministers, managers, pilots, soldiers, so why not a researcher or scientist?” she said.

She continued that the country’s leaders have “encouraged women to go in different fields. All sectors welcome this and Emirati woman prove that there is no such thing as impossible. She can be put in any role and can handle it.”