MIT deploys first full-scale autonomous Roboat on canals of Amsterdam
Back in 2016, we caught wind of an interesting research project looking to make use of Amsterdam's famously abundant waterways by deploying autonomous vessels to transport people and goods. These so-called Roboats have undergone a number of redesigns in the years since, and their creators have now landed on their final version, a full-scale, self-navigating watercraft they say is ready to be put to work.
The Roboat was originally conceived as a kind of portable public infrastructure solution as much as a form of transport, with early versions designed to act as floating platforms that could extend shorelines or even form floating bridges. This remained part of the vessels' DNA as the vessels became smarter and more agile, and in 2019 became capable of docking together and organizing themselves into different arrangements.
Last year, the developers of the Roboat from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) unveiled a half-scale version that was two meters (6.5 ft) long and finally big enough to transport passengers. This version was kitted out with some advanced navigation tech, which was showcased on a three-hour round trip along Amsterdam's canals that was completed without incident.
The newly introduced Roboat III is four meters (13-ft) long, can carry five passengers and is controlled by the same navigation tech involving LiDAR, GPS and a suite of cameras to build a 360-degree picture of its surroundings. To help guide the Roboat III from point A to B, data collected on obstacles and potential collisions by the sensors are fed to a control algorithm that in turn gives instructions to thrusters that move the boat through the water.
“We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation, and control systems, including new functions, such as close-proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” says Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.”
The Roboat III features an adaptable hull that enables top decks to be switched in and out depending on the job at hand. So while it can be fitted with seating for five, it can also be equipped with a decking suitable for moving cargo, collecting waste, or forming a floating platform for infrastructure purposes.
“As Roboat can perform its tasks 24/7, and without a skipper on board, it adds great value for a city," says Fabio Duarte, a principal research scientist in DUSP and lead scientist on the project. "However, for safety reasons it is questionable if reaching level A autonomy is desirable. Just like a bridge keeper, an onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control center. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”
The team has already deployed two full-scale Roboats in Amsterdam, and is now eyeing public trials of the technology.
"The historic center of Amsterdam is the perfect place to start, with its capillary network of canals suffering from contemporary challenges, such as mobility and logistics,” says Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute.
You can see the Roboat III in action in the video below.