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The city of Amsterdam envisions a future where fleets of autonomous boats cruise its many canals to transport goods and people, collect trash, or self-assemble into floating stages and bridges. To further that vision, MIT researchers have given new capabilities to their fleet of robotic boats — which are being developed as part of an ongoing project — that lets them target and clasp onto each other, and keep trying if they fail.
Image Caption: 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.
About a quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area is water, with 165 canals winding alongside busy city streets. Several years ago, MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) teamed up on the “Roboat” project. The idea is to build a fleet of autonomous robotic boats — rectangular hulls equipped with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras, and other hardware — that provides intelligent mobility on water to relieve congestion in the city’s busy streets.
One of project’s objectives is to create roboat units that provide on-demand transporation on waterways. Another objective is using the roboat units to automatically form “pop-up” structures, such as foot bridges, performance stages, or even food markets. The structures could then automatically disassemble at set times and reform into target structures for different activities. Additionally, the roboat units could be used as agile sensors to gather data on the city’s infrastructure, and air and water quality, among other things.
In 2016, MIT researchers tested a roboat prototype that cruised around Amsterdam’s canals, moving forward, backward, and laterally along a preprogrammed path. Last year, researchers designed low-cost, 3-D-printed, one-quarter scale versions of the boats, which were more efficient and agile, and came equipped with advanced trajectory-tracking algorithms.
In a paper presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, the researchers describe roboat units that can now identify and connect to docking stations. Control algorithms guide the roboats to the target, where they automatically connect to a customized latching mechanism with millimeter precision. Moreover, the roboat notices if it has missed the connection, backs up, and tries again.
The researchers tested the latching technique in a swimming pool at MIT and in the Charles River, where waters are rougher. In both instances, the roboat units were usually able to successfully connect in about 10 seconds, starting from around 1 meter away, or they succeeded after a few failed attempts. In Amsterdam, the system could be especially useful for overnight garbage collection. Roboat units could sail around a canal, locate and latch onto platforms holding trash containers, and haul them back to collection facilities.
“In Amsterdam, canals were once used for transportation and other things the roads are now used for. Roads near canals are now very congested — and have noise and pollution — so the city wants to add more functionality back to the canals,” says first author Luis Mateos, a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and a researcher in the MIT Senseable City Lab. “Self-driving technologies can save time, costs and energy, and improve the city moving forward.”
“The aim is to use roboat units to bring new capabilities to life on the water,” adds co-author Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “The new latching mechanism is very important for creating pop-up structures. Roboat does not need latching for autonomous transporation on water, but you need the latching to create any structure, whether it’s mobile or fixed.”
Joining Mateos on the paper are: Wei Wang, a joint postdoc in CSAIL and the Senseable City Lab; Banti Gheneti, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Fabio Duarte, a DUSP and Senseable City Lab research scientist; and Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab and a principal investigator and professor of the practice in DUSP.