MIT's Roboats become shapeshifting floating platforms
An ambitious initiative to breathe new life into Amsterdam’s abundant but underused canals has taken another step forward, with the researchers behind a set of autonomous boats showing off some promising new capabilities. MIT’s Roboats, as they’re called, have now been demonstrated arranging themselves into different shapes that could one day act as pop-up bridges or stages on the surface of the city’s waterways.
The canals of Amsterdam cover around a quarter of the Dutch city’s surface area, but these days their practicality is limited. The Roboat project is a collaboration between MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions aimed at reinvigorating the waterways, by using autonomous boats that come together to form floating bridges, food markets and stages, and also to transport people and goods.
The first prototypes were tested out on Amsterdam’s canals in 2016, before an upgraded, smarter and more agile version was demonstrated in 2018. Then back in June of this year, the team revealed another update, with the boats able to locate and dock with one another using a ball-and-socket locking mechanism.
Now, the researchers say the Roboats have the ability to shapeshift. That is, to autonomously latch onto and let go of one another to build different types of floating structures. This advance is the result of a new control algorithm that dictates the movement of the boats, which have now been separated into two vehicle classes: coordinators and workers.
All boats have four propellers, wireless micro-controllers, a suite of sensors and automated docking mechanisms to hook up with one another. But the coordinators also have GPS units, inertial measurement units and the ability to wirelessly communicate with all of the connected workers. One or more workers connect to a single coordinator to form what the team calls a connected-vessel platform (CVP), while each CVP can combine with other CVPs to form the desired structures.
To explore their shapeshifting capabilities, the researchers had CVPs made up of three Roboats apiece rearrange themselves into different shapes. One example was moving through the water as a straight line (side-by-side), disassembling and then connecting as another straight line, front-to-back. Another involves self-assembly in an L-shaped formation.
The fully developed Roboats will measure around 4 x 2 m (13 x 6 ft), but the researchers are working with quarter-scale prototypes as they flesh out the tech. One of the immediate goals held by the researchers is to deploy these larger versions to form a dynamic bridge between the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam and an adjacent bank, 60 m (200 ft) away.
“This will be the world’s first bridge comprised of a fleet of autonomous boats,” says MIT professor Carlo Ratti. “A regular bridge would be super expensive, because you have boats going through, so you’d need to have a mechanical bridge that opens up or a very high bridge. But we can connect two sides of canal [by using] autonomous boats that become dynamic, responsive architecture that float on the water.”