Spark

Self-driving, robotic boats turn Amsterdam's canals into markets and concert stages

MIT professor Daniela Rus explains how she's helped devise a group of self-driving boats, called "roboats," for Amsterdam's canals.

'Roboats' show off the future of urban modular infrastructure

MIT researchers have given their fleet of autonomous 'roboats' the ability to automatically target and clasp onto each other — and keep trying if they fail. The roboats are being designed to transport people, collect trash, and self-assemble into floating structures in the canals of Amsterdam. (MIT)
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Amsterdam, it seems, isn't content with being the bicycle commuting capital of the world.

Now it's planning to use its famous canals as another way to improve traffic and create new spaces for markets, concerts, and other services — all using autonomous, self-docking boats.

The Roboat project is a collaboration between MIT researchers and the city of Amsterdam, said Daniela Rus, director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence laboratory.

AI experts and roboticists have been designing the self-driving boats, which look like rectangular platforms and come in various sizes.

They are capable of assembling themselves into larger platforms, different shapes — and even become bridges if necessary, Rus told Spark host Nora Young.
Daniela Rus (MIT)

"People want to gather from time to time, and if there isn't a space dedicated for people you could move that activity to water," she explained.

"The objective is using the robots to automatically form these pop-up structures, for example foot bridges or performance stages or even food markets. The structures could form the desired geometric shape for the pop-up structure to support the activity maybe for a few hours," she added.

"Then the structures could automatically disassemble, move somewhere else and reform into a different target structure for a different activity."

Moreover, the boats will be equipped with sensors to monitor water and air quality and provide real-time information to city officials, she said.

The boats, and their self-assembling features, have been tested in Amsterdam and in the Charles River in Boston, which can have rougher water than the canals. "They do pretty well as long as it's not a major storm," Rus said.

If successful, the boats could be made bigger and used in other, more open water environments, she added.

The idea of modular, repurposable urban infrastructure is something that has intrigued Rus for a long time.

"I think that it will be exciting to create aspects of the built environment that are not permanent, that will help us better utilize our spaces, and that will help us create the structure when we need it — and then free up the space for green space, for leisure space, when those structures are not needed," she said.

The researchers intend to introduce prototypes into the canals later this year, she said. "And if we are successful, we really hope to bring this exciting new form of transportation to people and to cities."

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