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MIT researchers design printable, driverless boats to reduce traffic

The future of transportation in waterway-rich cities such as Amsterdam, Bangkok, and Venice may include autonomous boats that ferry goods and people, helping clear up road congestion.

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Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), have designed a fleet of autonomous boats that offer high manoeuvrability and precise control. The boats can also be rapidly 3D-printed using a low-cost printer, making mass manufacturing more feasible.


The boats could be used to taxi people around and to deliver goods, easing street traffic. In the future, the researchers also envision the driverless boats being adapted to perform city services overnight, instead of during busy daylight hours, further reducing congestion on both roads and canals.

 

CSAIL Director Daniela Rus said: “Imagine shifting some of infrastructure services that usually take place during the day on the road — deliveries, garbage management, waste management — to the middle of the night, on the water, using a fleet of autonomous boats.”

 

Self-assembling and multi-purpose

 

The boats — which are rectangular 4-by-2-meter hulls equipped with sensors, microcontrollers, GPS modules, and other hardware — could be programmed to self-assemble into floating bridges, concert stages, platforms for food markets, and other structures in a matter of hours, the researchers say.

“Again, some of the activities that are usually taking place on land, and that cause disturbance in how the city moves, can be done on a temporary basis on the water,” says Rus.

The boats could also be equipped with environmental sensors to monitor a city’s waters and gain insight into urban and human health.

Next steps

A next step for the work is developing adaptive controllers to account for changes in mass and drag of the boat when transporting people and goods. The researchers are also refining the controller to account for wave disturbances and stronger currents.

“We actually found that the Charles River has much more current than in the canals in Amsterdam,” Wang says. “But there will be a lot of boats moving around, and big boats will bring big currents, so we still have to consider this.”

The work was supported by a grant from AMS.

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