MIT’s robot boats can self-assemble to build bridges, stages or even markets

MIT researchers have created a new autonomous robot boat prototype — which they have named “roboats” to my everlasting glee — that can target and combine with one another Voltron-style to create new structures. Said structures could be bigger boats, but MIT is thinking a bit more creatively — it envisions a fleet of these being able to join up to form on-demand urban infrastructure, including stages for concerts, walking bridges or even entire outdoor markets.

The roboats would of course be able to act as autonomous water taxis and ferries, which could be particularly useful in a setting like Amsterdam, which is why MIT teamed up with Amsterdam’s Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions on this. Equipped with sensors, sub-aquatic thrusters, GPS, cameras and tiny computer brains, the roboats can currently follow a pre-determined path, but testing on newer 3D-printed prototypes introduced a level of autonomy that can accomplish a lot more.

New tests focused on a custom latching system, with a very high degree of precision, that can connect to specific points with millimetre accuracy, using a trial and error algorithm-based autonomous programming to make sure they connect to their target correctly. The initial use case in Amsterdam that MIT identified is overnight garbage collection, where these could act as mini barges working the canal to quickly and easily clear refuse left out by residents and store owners.

Longer-term, the vision is to see what kind of additional configurations might be possible, including larger platforms that can support people on board, and “tentacle-like rubber grippers that tighten around the pin — like a squid grasping its prey” to improve the latching mechanism in a way inspired by a somewhat terrifying visual.