June 6, 2019
Ryan Whitwam

MIT and Amsterdam Partner on Autonomous ‘Roboats’

While most cities are revving up to get self-driving cars on the roads, Amsterdam is more interested in autonomous boats. The Dutch city is about one-quarter water thanks to its massive network of canals, and it has visions of robotic boats cruising those waterways. The city is working with MIT to make that vision a reality with the cleverly named “Roboats.”

The idea is to equip the small rectangular vessels with sensors, propellers, microcontrollers, GPS, cameras, and other hardware and turn them loose to provide on-demand transportation of goods and people will help clear Amsterdam’s clogged streets. The designers also envision multiple boats linking together to form temporary footbridges, performance stages, and even floating marketplaces. The key to all of this is designing robots that can reliably navigate and link up to each other while floating on the water.

The Roboats have lidar and cameras to help them navigate around complex environments, not unlike self-driving cars. The boats have small printed augmented reality tags known as AprilTag, which look like simplified QR codes. Other boats can see these tags and use them for orientation when docking.

Each Roboat has a latching mechanism with ball and socket components on the front, back, and sides. Docking two robots together is harder when they’re floating on water, which moves in unpredictable ways. So, the sockets have cone-shaped guides that help line up the robots if they’re a couple of inches off on the rendezvous. The cone has a laser sensor inside that registers when another Roboat docks. It triggers a mechanism that locks the boats together until they get the signal to separate.

Canals usually have gentle waves that shouldn’t jostle the robots too much, but MIT researchers are working on ways to compensate for larger disturbances like wakes from other boats. If two Roboats have closed the distance and the laser sensor doesn’t register a successful docking, the robots can back away and try docking again.

The current Roboats are too small for anyone to use for transportation, but they are just prototypes. The team is working on Roboats that are four times larger, offering more stability and power. A new docking mechanism with tentacle-like rubber grippers is in the works as well. That could make the connection between boats strong enough to lug around heavy payloads. The team also wants to replace the printed AprilTags with an LCD that could change to adjust assembly orders.

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