Granted, there aren’t many cities where self-driving water taxis are a viable option, but Amsterdam may just be one of those places. This week, scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Laboratory launched the first self-navigating, fully autonomous robot boats. They call ’em Roboats (geddit?), and they made their maiden voyages in the canals today.
The boats are big enough to carry five people. The team suggests they can also be used to collect waste, deliver goods and do other boaty things that people do with boats. The straight-out-of-Blade Runner vessels are battery-powered and can charge wirelessly when they’re at the dock. The team claims there’s enough juice on board for 10 hours of operation.
To autonomously determine a free path and avoid crashing into objects, Roboat uses lidar and a number of cameras to enable a 360-degree view. Navigation is done much like you would in a car — using GPS to figure out a safe route from where it is to where it’s going.
“We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation and control systems, including new functions, such as close proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” says MIT professor and CSAIL Director Daniela Rus. “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.”
One clever aspect of the Roboat is that the boat is built on an universal platform — a hull that can be used for multiple purposes, along with its batteries and propulsion systems. The top deck can be switched out, making it possible to deploy it in different ways, for different use cases.
“As Roboat can perform its tasks 24/7, and without a skipper on board, it adds great value for a city. However, for safety reasons it is questionable if reaching Level A autonomy is desirable,” says Fábio Duarte, a lead scientist on the project. “An onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control center. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”
You can see the technology in action on Roboat.org.