MIT Is Building a Swarm of Self-Driving Boats


From a collaboration between MIT, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute), Delft University of Technology (TUD), and Wageningen University and Research (WUR), Amsterdam will be getting a fleet of self-driving boats, or, ‘ROBOATs’. These robots are small modular boats that drive and operate autonomously. The plan is to have a fleet of ROBOATs that all interact with each other. The boats can join together to create platforms, bridges, or performance stages in the water. The autonomous boats are a result of a research project that received €25 million (~$26 million) in funding; €20 million from MIT, and €5 million from the AMS Institute.

The autonomous boats look more like small flat platforms than a typical boat. The boats are designed to be light and easy to maneuver, which is important if you want the boats to connect to each other by themselves. The technology powering the boats is very similar to that in an self-driving car. They’re full of sensors to collect data about the environment and understand their position. Each boat is also equipped with special sensors to collect data about water and air quality.

With all the data that a boat will collect, the researchers hope to inform environmental policy and improve water and air quality. Just like typical self-driving cars, the boats collect 3D mapping data from its environment. But unlike typical self-driving cars, the boats also look under the water. Apparently 12,000 bicycles are thrown into Amsterdam’s canals each year, so by mapping the bottom of the canals (among other data being collected), that could help local officials clear trash.

But just like all self-driving cars, The ROBOAT team will need to spend a lot of time training the system before the boats can roam around by themselves. “We need to have enough learning,” says Carlo Ratti, Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab. “Just like with self-driving cars we want to accumulate many miles to make sure the system is safe, and to test it for an extensive period of time.”

Other than environmental research and data collection, the ROBOATs offer a lot of interesting use cases. During peak city activity, the ROBOATs can come together to form temporary bridges or extra walkways for pedestrians. They can also be used for transporting people and goods. One creative use case is an on-demand on-water stage. Imagine putting a dozen of the platform-like boats together to form a stage where a band could play for an audience.

The ROBOAT project is set to launch into Amsterdam’s canals in 2017, even though the project is projected to last 5 years.

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