Self-Driving Robot Boats Have Set Sail

By Kristi Eckert | 7 months ago

robot boat

With each passing year technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds. Scientists at Caltech recently revealed their Leo robot. A bipedal robot with the potential to chart previously unreachable areas. Companies like Tesla have unveiled prototypes of self-driving cars. Flying cars seemingly straight out of The Jetsons are now even a reality. In addition to all of that, The great minds at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a self-driving robot boat.

The robot boat prototype came out of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Laboratory in collaboration with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute). They are calling the autonomously functioning robot boats “Roboats.”

Although the prototype of the robot boat that was unveiled was fully to scale, the project initially started out small. MIT started testing mini-vessels in their pool beginning in 2015, and last year they demoed a 2-meter-long version before starting work on what would become a full-size robot boat.

The robot boat’s functionality is impressive. According to MIT’s website, the Roboat can “comfortably carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure.” The robot boat also runs on electricity and holds a charge for approximately 10 hours. 

MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director at CSAIL Daniela Rus said that the reason that the team at MIT was able to accomplish this now was specifically because of particular advancements in navigational technology. “We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation, and control systems, including new functions, such as close-proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” said Rus.

Rus also pointed out that “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.” This is good considering that people vary greatly in height and weight and the fact that it can both measure and adjust itself accordingly is impressive. 

The robot boat’s navigational tool kit is quite remarkable. It uses a vast array of cameras combined with special scanning technologies and advanced GPS systems in order to get from one place to another safely. This can be particularly beneficial for those operating a boat at night or in inclement weather. The scanning technology can also help to avoid accidentally running the boat on the ground in shallow water. As an added safety measure there will always be an onshore operator managing any given fleet of 10 robot boats.

The robot boats can even dock themselves, which can be one of the most challenging things to do when operating a boat. It is also very versatile, in that its hulls are interchangeable depending upon what the boat is being used for. Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute, said that he is looking forward to bringing the boats into the public sphere, emphasizing that Amsterdam would be a great place to start because of its “capillary network of canals.” The canals could really serve to properly vet the functionality of the boats. 

Robot boats are just another product to come out of a rapidly advancing technological world. So many things that were once thought to be science fiction are coming to fruition. In the coming years, the world could begin to look very different, as cars and boats pilot themselves and flying cars hover above the air while robots are exploring uncharted territories.