MIT’s autonomous boats take to the water in Amsterdam

An upgrade five years in the making now allows Roboat II to carry passengers.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

MIT has upgraded its autonomous boat fleet with the Roboat II, a vehicle sailing down the canals of Amsterdam that is able to carry passengers. 

On Monday, MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Lab published an update on the project, which aims to develop maritime autonomy applications if not for the sea -- for now -- at least for smart cities and more urban environments. 

Five years after creating the first prototype, CSAIL and Senseable have added a new boat to the fleet -- the Roboat II. 

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The two-meter boat utilizes four propellers to move down waterways and is equipped with similar algorithms, sensors, and mapping technology to autonomous land vehicles. 

The algorithms map waterways and plot paths between a series of "goal points" according to the team. As water conditions can be disruptive, the use of goal points is "noisy" and may not be fully direct, but are a safer way to navigate. 

This algorithm has been called Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM).

During tests, Roboat II was able to autonomously travel down Amsterdam canals for three hours and return to its start location with an error margin of under seven inches (0.17m).

The Roboat II has been able to comfortably carry two passengers; however, the applications of autonomous, water-worthy vehicles could go beyond passenger transport by delivering goods or cleaning up waterways polluted by trash. 


An interesting facet of the project is "collective transport" -- the ability to connect up numerous autonomous vehicles under the same controllers by using cooperative algorithms.

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"[This] is a strategy inspired by how a colony of ants can transport food without communication," the team explained. "The leader initiates movement to the destination, and then the other robots can estimate the intention of the leader, and align their movements accordingly."

Roboat II is what CSAIL calls the "half-scale" boat of the overall project. The next vehicle on the horizon, currently being built in Amsterdam, will be four meters long and may be able to carry between four and six passengers. 

Alongside developing the next vehicle, the CSAIL and Senseable team are now exploring adaptive controllers for dynamic changes when goods and other objects are placed on a boat, and they also plan to extend their tests to water sources with more difficult conditions to navigate, such as strong currents and waves. 

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"The development of an autonomous boat system capable of accurate mapping, robust control, and human transport is a crucial step towards having the system implemented in the full-scale Roboat," says Wei Wang, a senior postdoctoral associate from the Senseable City Lab and CSAIL. "We also hope it will eventually be implemented in other boats in order to make them autonomous."

A paper on the collective transport element is due to be presented at the upcoming International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). 

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