Roboats Bridge the Gaps in Amsterdam’s Canals
Rachel Maya Gallagher posted on September 13, 2019 |

In Amsterdam, a fleet of robot boats—referred to as “roboats”—are preparing to service the city’s canals with unparalleled versatility. These modular machines can attach to and detach from one another, forming and reforming structures as they navigate through winding channels.

Roboats in an MIT pool use a novel latching mechanism to form an L-shape.
Roboats in an MIT pool use a novel latching mechanism to form an L-shape.

Autonomous Navigation

The first roboats set sail in 2016, when MIT researchers developed a rectangular hull that could move forward, backward, and sideways along a preprogrammed path. Updates to the roboat design included designing more efficient quarter-scale 3D-printed versions for increased agility, and the addition of an automated latching mechanism that allowed for multiple attempts at attachment.

The most recent roboat development was revealed several weeks ago, at the IEEE International Symposium on Multi-Robot and Multi-Agent Systems. Researchers at MIT presented a new algorithm that handles the planning and tracking involved in connected-vessel platforms (CVPs) components unlatching from one another, following a collision-free path, and reattaching at their destinations.

Operational Capabilities

Roboats are organized into CVPs, which consist of one coordinator and one or more workers. All components of a CVP have four propellers, a wireless microcontroller, and automated latching and sensing mechanisms. However, only the coordinator has GPS navigation capability and an inertial measurement unit (IMU).

When a structure composed of CVP units shapeshifts, all the CVPs compare their current shape to their projected shape. If a CVP has a place in the new structure, it stays, and if it doesn’t, the unit disassembles at a specific time determined by all the connected units. Using the algorithm unveiled at the IEEE symposium, disconnected units compute the shortest, collision-free path to their new structure, where they then travel and latch into place.

The three CVPs pictured were arranged in a front-to-back line before disconnecting and rearranging themselves into a side-by-side formation. Roboat computer simulations successfully rearranged themselves from a square shape to a Z-shape with as many as 12 units at a time. (Image courtesy of MIT News.)
The three CVPs pictured were arranged in a front-to-back line before disconnecting and rearranging themselves into a side-by-side formation. Roboat computer simulations successfully rearranged themselves from a square shape to a Z-shape with as many as 12 units at a time. (Image courtesy of MIT News.)

Infrastructure Applications

Roboats can come together to form impromptu bridges or platforms where the need for them arises, then disassemble to allow for the normal flow of traffic. The first projected application for this is a dynamic “bridge” of roboats that will travel in a circle around a 60-meter stretch of canal, transporting passengers between an undeveloped area and the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam’s city center.

“This will be the world’s first bridge comprised of a fleet of autonomous boats,” said Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab.

Overhead view of the test version of roundAround at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. (Image courtesy of curbed.com.)
Overhead view of the test version of roundAround at MIT’s Senseable City Lab. (Image courtesy of curbed.com.)

Using roboats is much less expensive than building a traditional bridge and does not permanently consume construction materials. Ultimately, roboats will be used throughout all 165 of Amsterdam’s canals, where they are expected to pick up trash, transport people and goods, and move urban activity from the streets to the water.

For more on autonomous navigation, check out this humanlike AI driving system. And for information on how infrastructure is changing with the climate, look into these new innovations to address flooding and extreme temperatures.


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