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About a quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area is water, with 165 canals winding alongside city streets. Self-driving technologies can save time, costs and energy, and improve the city moving forward. MIT researchers are trying to build a fleet of autonomous robotic boats — rectangular hulls equipped with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras, and other hardware — that provides intelligent mobility on water to relieve congestion in the Amsterdam’s busy canals.
This smart city solution will include the autonomous boats that will cruise the canals to transport goods and people, collect trash, or self-assemble into floating stages and bridges.
To further that vision, MIT researchers have given new capabilities to their fleet of robotic boats — which are being developed as part of an ongoing project — that lets them target and clasp onto each other, and keep trying if they fail.
The Roboat project is carried out in cooperation with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute).
The objectives are to create units that provide on-demand transportation on waterways and use the roboat units to automatically form “pop-up” structures, such as foot bridges, performance stages, or even food markets. The structures could then automatically disassemble at set times and reform into target structures for different activities. The roboat units could also be used as agile sensors to gather data on the city’s infrastructure, and air and water quality, etc.
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 meter away, or they succeeded after a few failed attempts.
In Amsterdam, the system could be especially useful for overnight garbage collection. Roboat units could sail around a canal, locate and latch onto platforms holding trash containers, and haul them back to collection facilities.
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, as reported by news.mit.edu.
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 an unmoving 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 3-D position and orientation relative to the tag.
Both the AprilTags and cameras are located in the same locations in center of the roboats. When a traveling roboat is roughly one or two meters away from the stationary AprilTag, the roboat calculates its position and orientation to the tag.