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MIT roboat

Autonomous boats link up to create floating platforms in Amsterdam’s canals

Image credit: MIT

Robot boats that can target and clasp onto one another in order to form bridges and other floating structures are being developed by MIT researchers with the famously canal-laden city of Amsterdam in mind.

About a quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area is water, with 165 canals winding alongside busy city streets.

MIT’s ‘Roboat’ project has been in the works for several years and features autonomous boats equipped with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras, and other hardware that provides intelligent mobility on water to relieve congestion in the city’s busy streets.

One objective is to allow individual roboat units to automatically form ‘pop-up’ structures, such as footbridges, performance stages, or even food markets.

The structures could then automatically disassemble at set times and reform into target structures for different activities. Additionally, the roboat units could be used as agile sensors to gather data on the city’s infrastructure, and air and water quality, among other things.

In a new paper the researchers have described how the roboat units can now identify and connect to docking stations.

Control algorithms guide the roboats to the target, where they automatically connect to a customised latching mechanism with millimetre precision. It can also detect if it has missed the connection, backs up, and tries again.

The researchers tested the latching technique in a swimming pool at MIT and in the Charles River, where waters are rougher.

In both instances, the roboat units were usually able to successfully connect in about 10 seconds, starting from around 1 metre away, or they succeeded after a few failed attempts.

In Amsterdam, the system could be especially useful for overnight rubbish collection. Roboat units could sail around a canal, locate and latch onto platforms holding trash containers, and haul them back to collection facilities.

“In Amsterdam, canals were once used for transportation and other things the roads are now used for. Roads near canals are now very congested – and have noise and pollution – so the city wants to add more functionality back to the canals,” said Luis Mateos, who worked on the project. “Self-driving technologies can save time, costs and energy, and improve the city moving forward.”

“The aim is to use roboat units to bring new capabilities to life on the water,” said team member Daniela Rus.

“The new latching mechanism is very important for creating pop-up structures. Roboat does not need latching for autonomous transportation on water, but you need the latching to create any structure, whether it’s mobile or fixed.”

Each roboat is equipped with latching mechanisms, including ball and socket components, on its front, back, and sides.

The ball component resembles a badminton shuttlecock—a cone-shaped, rubber body with a metal ball at the end. The socket component is a wide funnel that guides the ball component into a receptor. Inside the funnel, a laser beam acts like a security system that detects when the ball crosses into the receptor. That activates a mechanism with three arms that closes around and captures the ball, while also sending a feedback signal to both roboats that the connection is complete.

On the software side, the roboats run on custom computer vision and control techniques.

Each roboat has a lidar system and camera, so they can autonomously move from point to point around the canals.

Each docking station, typically a stationary roboat, has a sheet of paper imprinted with an augmented reality tag, called an AprilTag, which resembles a simplified QR code.

Commonly used for robotic applications, AprilTags enable robots to detect and compute their precise 3D position and orientation relative to the tag.

The researchers are now designing roboat units roughly four times the size of the current iterations, so they’ll be more stable on water.

They are also working on a system that displays the AprilTags on an LCD monitor that changes codes to signal multiple roboat units to assemble in a given order.

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