Researchers from the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Sensaeble City Laboratory in collaboration with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute), Netherlands has developed a full-scale, automated robotic boat that is on course to be deployed along the waters of Amsterdam.
The robotic boat coined ‘Roboat’ is a project that has long being in the offing ever since the team began prototyping small vessels in the MIT pool at the tail end of 2015, with the team last year releasing their 2 meters long half-scale medium model laced with spectacular navigating prowess.
Fast forward to this year, we have the launch of the automated Roboats, a new robotic machine boat that has the capacity to carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, while providing on-demand infrastructure.
The sleek fully electrical boat with a battery that is the size of a small chest can power up to 10 hours of operation, with wireless charging capabilities, is laced with a combination of black and gray colors that is adorned with two seats facing one another.
Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL while analyzing the functionality of roboat said:
“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. Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat”.
The new machine will have to make use of a meticulous fusion of proper navigation, perception, and control software to aid its swift and unhindered navigation via the waters of Amsterdam. With the use of a Global Positioning System (GPS), the boat can autonomously embark on a safe route from A to B, as its continuously scans the environment to avoid colliding with objects like bridges, pillars and even other boats.
Roboat made use of lidar and an assemblage of cameras that enables 360-degree view to automatically know a free and safe path that would prevent it from crashing into objects. The camera bundle of sensors known as ‘perception kit’ allows the machine to understand its surroundings. Immediately the perception notices an unseen object like a canoe, the algorithm flags the item as ‘unknown’ but when the team at the end of the day looks at the data themselves, the object is manually selected by the controllers and then tagged as ‘canoe’.
The control algorithms, akin to the ones applicable for automated cars translate a given path into instructions toward the “thrusters,” which are the propellers that help the boat move.
The latching mechanism of the boat is one of its most impressive functions, with small cameras on the boat guiding it safely to the docking station or to other boats when they detect specific QR codes.
Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of the Senseable City Lab explained this functionality further when he said:
“The system allows Roboat to connect to other boats, and to the docking station, to form temporary bridges to alleviate traffic, as well as floating stages and squares, which wasn’t possible with the last iteration”.
The ‘Roboat’ machine design shows an inherent versatility. It has a universal ‘hull’ design, a part of the boat that rides both in and top of the water and unlike other boats with unique hulls, Roboat has a hull design where the base is the same, even though the top decks can be switched out depending on the use.
“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 Fabio Duarte, a principal research scientist in DUSP and lead scientist on the project. “Just like a bridge keeper, an onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control center. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”
The next major step for Roboat is to have the machine in the public domain, with Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute hammering on the possibility when he said:
“The historic center of Amsterdam is the perfect place to start, with its capillary network of canals suffering from contemporary challenges, such as mobility and logistics”.