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In the future, Amsterdam’s canals might have robot boats

The “roboats” can now target and clasp each other. Someday bigger versions may be roaming the canals of Amsterdam.Luis Mateosl

In the Amsterdam of the future, you might step out of the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House, or one of the city’s hazy “coffee shops” and hop onto a robot boat to take you to your next destination. Outside the place you’re staying, in the early morning hours, you might hear other robot boats carrying away the trash.

That’s the vision of researchers at MIT, who teamed up several years ago with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions.

They hope that one day, “roboats” will busily ply the city’s 165 canals, carrying people, goods, trash, and from time to time forming themselves into floating stages or bridges.


In a paper presented recently at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, the researchers said they had taken another step in their ongoing project: developing the capability for the roboats to identify and connect to docking stations and other boats.

“The aim is to use roboat units to bring new capabilities to life on the water. . . . The new latching mechanism is very important for creating pop-up structures,” Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said in a statement from MIT.

The paper said researchers had developed a “novel latching system” that enables roboats to assemble floating structures “while overcoming water disturbances.” The researchers tested the system in a university swimming pool and in the Charles River.

The latching system is based on a ball-and-socket joint. In turbulent water, the paper said, after a missed first attempt, the system can autonomously adapt, repositioning the roboat and latching.

“A logic component on the roboat says, ‘You missed, so back up, recalculate your position, and try again,’ ” first author Luis Mateos, a graduate student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a researcher in the MIT Senseable City Lab, said in the statement.


About a quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area is water, with busy streets running alongside busy canals.

Rus said in an e-mail that the roboats will be equipped with sensors that will enable them to avoid collisions as they navigate among human-controlled boats. Humans can also override the roboat systems in case of emergencies.

“The city wants to add more functionality back to the canals,” Mateos said.“Self-driving technologies can save time, costs and energy, and improve the city moving forward.”