A injured man lies bleeding on the street, rolling against the wall to escape the sniper that shot him. Nobody dares approach him, fearing they’ll be next.
Such a scene is being repeated daily across Syria, with snipers becoming more and more ruthless. Regime snipers even make bets amongst each other for cigarettes to target specific body parts, such as the stomachs of pregnant women.
But Ahmad Heidar hopes his invention will ensure help can reach those injured in such attacks.
“The brother of one of my students got shot in the leg. It was such a memorable moment,” says Heidar. Within a few minutes, a fatal shot to the neck had killed him. It took another 30 agonising minutes to get the body away from the threat of the sniper. Nobody dared approach in case they would be the next victim. “They had to use ropes and metal poles, because they couldn’t get there,” he says.
Appalled, Heidar decided to apply his knowledge of robotics to building a robot which could get to a victim, fast. In neighbouring Turkey, he ran into a former childhood friend Bilal, a mechanical engineer. He had lost two cousins, one of whom’s body had languished on the street for a week. They joined forces to ensure that, someday, others would not encounter the same fate.
The result is Robotena (www.robotena.org), a “nurse robot” which will be able to transport bodies away from the sniper towards a field medic. Unlike models developed by the US and Israeli military, the robot will be huge, enabling it to protect a victim from further bullets within its metal body.
Heidar plans on dimension of 2,2 m high and with a head up to a meter wide, which will be able to encase a body. “I am using bulldozer parts,” he says. It’s a little reminiscent of a tank, with 5 camera’s and two metal arms, which alone weigh 400 pounds, attached to the front. In order to protect a victim the entire structure will be covered by armored plates, adding to its expense.
The current model costs $25,000 to produce. Crowd funding has provided $15,000 though it is difficult as initiatives in conflict zones are barredf rom popular platforms such as Kickstarter. Development is currently on hold due to the prohibitive costs. There are those that are happy to finance the project, at a price. Heidar’s skills are sought after by military groups – “I think you know who I mean”, he says ominously – who are trying to force him to weaponise his invention. Although he is not interested, their attempts to force him to change his mind mean he is currently in hiding. “I am not very safe,” he says.
This is not the first time his programming skills have forced Heidar into hiding. In 2011, a friend tried to recruit him for the Syrian Electronic Army, which hacks opposition activists and sites of media and government it considers to be opposition friendly. He was offered to fulfill his mandatory two year military service by hacking. Instead, he fled and joined the hackers collective the Pirates of Aleppo. He hacked the accounts of arrested opposition figures and replaced any incriminating content with pornography.
The engineer has extended this sense of humour to the naming of his creation. TENA was named after a Finnish girl Heidar met on a plane. “I just fell in love with a girl for one hour, she was like an angel... I was using her name to get her attention!” he laughs, quickly adding that he is now happily married.
In two months, TENA’s arms will be finished. If the funding arrives, he hopes to build the rest of the robot by the end of the year. The sooner he is finished, the better. In his Aleppo neighbourhood of Bustan al Qasr alone, he claims there are four people being shot by snipers every day. “They need about 6 in Aleppo, but what about Homs, Deir Ez-Zor?” he asks.
Heidar is hoping that he will be able to partner with NGOs to up production once the prototype is done. Medicins Sans Frontiers has expressed interest in seeing the robot once it’s finished, and Google Ideas is hosting him at a conference. “What makes me sad is that a company like Honda is spending millions of dollars to develop a robot that can only dance. Come on people, are dying over here!”