Smart navigation strategies

Imagine a bridge that can automatically assemble itself precisely where crowds are waiting to cross. That’s just one of the possibilities that the Roboat project envisages for its autonomous vessels. The five-year research project, now rounding off its second year, is working to develop the world’s first fleet of self-driving boats for the City of Amsterdam. In a city with such an extensive canal network, the Roboat developers propose a host of possibilities in smart mobility to solve urban logistical problems.

Like a self-driving car, a Roboat can find its own way through the waterways, dodging obstacles and other boats. At the same time it has to take into account the dynamics of navigating on water. As the technology progresses, the boats will intelligently learn strategies to calculate the optimal route.

17th-century canals, high-tech applications

Roboats have the potential to be used simply for transport, providing handy self-driven water-taxi services. In a congested city, a boat using smart navigation could actually be a time-saver. But there are many other ways in which these highly manoeuvrable vessels go far beyond merely putting the person at the helm out of a job. Autonomous tug boats could be sent to retrieve pleasure boats moored outside the city, for example, relieving the congestion along the canal sides in the centre. And Roboats could deliver fresh food to customers along the canals, or work together in a fleet to form pop-up markets with floating food stalls.

Amsterdam's new vision for smart mobility

Another promising application is in waste collection, which presents a challenge in a densely populated city like Amsterdam. In the city centre, the household trash has to be piled on the pavement for collection by polluting garbage trucks that clog the narrow streets. Roboat units could quietly and cleanly carry the trash away along the canals.

Perhaps the most intriguing potential use of autonomous vessels in not for transport but for infrastructure. The researchers envisage fleets of rectangular Roboats docking themselves together to make temporary pontoon bridges, responding to traffic flow in real time and alleviating congestion on existing bridges. The vessels could also join themselves together to form floating stages for special events.

Roboats in action

With its maze of canals, Amsterdam is an obvious choice to experiment with the possibilities of autonomous vessels. But of course it’s not hard to imagine Roboats plying the canals of other watery cities around the world, like Venice or Bangkok. The research team have already travelled to Tokyo to show off the Roboat’s potential.

Read more about Amsterdam's smart mobility sector.

Roboat is a collaboration between the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). On 5 October, the two teams came together at the Marineterrein in Amsterdam to showcase the results of the first two years of the project. 1:4 scale prototype boats were in action, with commentary from MIT professor Carlo Ratti. An exhibition using interactive AR installations and data visualisation also offered visitors a glimpse of the Roboat’s future possibilities.

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