Electric boat on Amsterdam canal

Ro, ro, ro your bot: autonomous e-boats take to Amsterdam’s canals

Image credit: Associated Press

The Dutch capital of Amsterdam is to begin testing driverless electric boats on its canals in a trial to investigate their potential for tasks such as transporting passengers – easing traffic on its congested streets – and collecting waste.

Amsterdam’s 100km of waterways will play host to prototypes of fully autonomous electric boats. They are being deployed as part of an effort to develop new ways of navigating waterways without human supervision, led by MIT and Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions.

Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at the Amsterdam Institute, told the Associated Press that the technology is “very relevant in highly complex port operations, where you have a lot of vessels and a lot of ships and a lot of quays and piers. There you can really improve the safety with autonomous systems, but also make it more efficient and into a 24/7 operations approach.”

In a recent demonstration, a 4m-long electric boat glided past a full-size replica of the eighteenth-century three-mast trading ship of the Dutch East India Company, the Amsterdam, which lives in front of the Netherlands Maritime Museum - a striking display of the city’s past and future.

The 'Roboats' have orange propellers and four thrusters powered by an electric battery. They can reach a top speed of around 6.5km/h and run for 12-24 hours, depending on the battery type and cargo load. They are also modular, meaning that they can be adapted for various purposes, such as to carry either cargo or people.

In the coming trial, the Roboats will be trained to manoeuvre through traffic in Amsterdam’s canals, which are busy environments full of private boats and canal cruises for tourists, among other still and moving obstacles. The boats are remotely steered by a computer, which uses data collected by cameras and other sensors mounted on the vessels to detect objects. According to the researchers involved in the project, they will take two to four years to perfect the autonomous steering technology.

“It’s mostly because we want to be absolutely sure that we can navigate safely in the canals,” said Rens Doornbusch, a mechatronics engineer and autonomous technology enthusiast. “Right now, we have the autonomy in place, but one of the next steps is to make sure that we can actually handle any kind of situation that we might encounter in the canals.”

Before the Roboats can be deployed fully in Amsterdam, the team will also need to consider non-technical concerns such as legislative and privacy considerations. Van Dijk commented: “We are actively working together with the ministries and the legislators to identify what specific legal aspects have to be changed to allow for fully autonomous operation.”

The use of data by the Roboat system has been developed “in such a way that we are not identifying any persons that are walking on the roads. So in that sense, privacy is being secured,” he added.

Last year, the UK’s first sea-going electric ferry – which used repurposed batteries from the Nissan Leaf electric car – was tested in waters near Portsmouth. Following the testing, Plymouth is set to gain a much larger 150-passenger all-electric ferry to connect the city to Cornwall.

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