MIT to test autonomous robot boats in Amsterdam

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SENSEable City Lab

While much of the world seems crazed by the idea of autonomous cars, in Netherlands, something else floats their boat. And the meaning is literal. Let’s zoom in on Amsterdam, intertwined with a hundred kilometers of water canals. There, the city’s Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) aims to move a part of mobility from roads to waterways by building a fleet of autonomous platoon-like boats. Neatly using the abundance of water canals to their advantage, the prototypes are expected to be tested in the capital city in 2017.

The five-year project — titled ROBOAT — will be led by engineers from MIT with a €25 million budget ($27 million), joined by two research institutions in the Netherlands — the Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University and Research Center. The program will develop a logistics platform for people and goods, superimposing a dynamic infrastructure over one the world’s most famous water cities.

“Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people that can also cooperate to produce temporary floating infrastructure, such as on-demand bridges or stages that can be assembled or disassembled in a matter of hours,” says Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice of urban technologies in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

Besides tackling the complex urban challenges such as shifting a part of transportation onto the canals, Roboat will also deploy environmental sensing to monitor water quality and offer data for assessing and predicting issues related to public health, pollution, and the environment.

As reported by The Verge, the researchers want to explore the creation of data-gathering robots to help detect waterborne disease and kill them off before they can spread among the population. Furthermore, the Roboat fleet also could — with some more tinkering — sweep the waterways for waste, including the 12,000 bicycles that meet their end in the Dutch city’s canals each year.

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A concept image of Roboats being assembled to form a temporary bridge. (MIT Senseable City Lab / AMS Institute)

Amsterdam is not the only city that can benefit from this. Roboat’s findings could also provide insights for many other coastal cities into how to unburden the traffic or even deal with rising sea levels. As pointed out by Arjan van Timmeren, AMS’s scientific director, 80 percent of global economic output is generated around coasts, riverbanks, and deltas, while that same portion of land is home to 60 percent of world’s population.

“Water is the bearer of life. By focusing on the water system of the city, ROBOAT can create opportunities for new environmental sensing methods and climate adaptation. This will help secure the city’s quality of life and lasting functionality,” says van Timmeren.

Rising sea levels are already a problem in some cities. For example in Boston, the situation has prompted the unthinkable: To copy Amsterdam and Venice, and become a city of canals. At any rate, the canal system was once the key functional urban infrastructure and remains to play a major role in tourism and recreation. Seeing as the potential is still there, the canals might rekindle its use to also tackle again the municipal issues. Only this time, clothed in a much more modern fashion with robot boats.

Michal Madaras

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