Amsterdam tests autonomous boats

8th November 2018 Jonathan Andrews

Small-scale autonomous boat prototypes have been tested in Amsterdam to evaluate their potential to relieve road congestion by ferrying commuters and collecting household waste along the city’s extensive canal network.

The tests concluded Roboat’s second year of research, as part of a five-year collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions.

“This project imagines a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people that can also cooperate to produce temporary floating infrastructure, such as on-demand bridges or stages that can be assembled or disassembled in a matter of hours,” said Carlo Ratti, Director of the MIT Senseable City Lab and Principal Investigator at AMS Institute. “This is something that has not been shown before in other projects for autonomous vessels.”

The full-sized prototypes with four-by-two-metre hulls will be equipped with sensors, micro-controllers, GPS modules, and other hardware and could be programmed to self-assemble into floating bridges, concert stages, platforms for food markets, and other structures.

“Again, some of the activities that are usually taking place on land, and that cause disturbance in how the city moves, can be done on a temporary basis on the water,” said Daniella Rus, Director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The mechanism for latching or docking vessels to the quay was further developed this year. The vessels can determine each other’s position on the water using GPS, while when the vessels are close enough to come into sight, LIDAR and then a camera takes over local positioning.

A new type of sensor has also been attached and tested that can continuously measure water quality as the vessels move around.

Next year, the team will look to produce a 1:2 scale Roboat, test prototypes for the collection of household waste, develop a use case for the urban transport of people, develop the water sensor technology, and explore the use of LIDAR and camera sensors for the inspection of quays and bridges.

With nearly one-quarter of the city covered by water, Amsterdam is an ideal place for developing Roboat, according to the researchers. The canal system was once the key functional urban infrastructure of the city and today still plays a major role in recreation and tourism.

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