Image: MIT CSAIL
Self-driving cars on the cusp of breaking into the mainstream. Several companies are just a few years away from rolling out fully autonomous vehicles to the public. However, the benefits of automation don’t have to stop on the roads.
That’s exactly what MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) thinks. For the past five years, researchers have been working on a fleet of autonomous boats. The small craft will be deployed in the canals of Amsterdam and are capable of carrying two passengers at a time. That last part is a major accomplishment, putting the “Roboat II” in a class of its own.
Float Your Boat
Although the concept is practically non-existent in most parts of the U.S., boat travel is still fairly common in Europe. That’s especially true for cities with an abundance of canals like Amsterdam and Venice. In these places, boats act like taxis to get passengers from point A to point B.
It should be no surprise that there are people working on self-driving boats. After all, experts predict that the global robotaxi market will be worth nearly $39 billion in 2030. With the self-driving car space becoming increasingly crowded, autonomous boats still have no champion. Aside from CSAIL researchers, that is.
The lab’s latest boat is about two meters long and features four propellers that allow it to move in any direction. Like land-based autonomous vehicles, it is equipped with LIDAR, GPS, and inertial sensors that allow it to navigate the waterways.
Each Roboat II can carry two passengers. However, the boats are designed to be modular. This means several of them can self-assemble into a larger craft that can carry more people. It is then controlled by a “leader” boat.
So far, MIT’s real-world testing with the Roboat II is going well. The team sent the autonomous craft out into Amsterdam’s canals for three hours, allowing it to navigate at will. At the end of the experiment, the team found that it had a margin of error totaling less than seven inches. In other words, this autonomous boat is good at what it does.
More to Come
The Roboat II is already impressive. However, the CSAIL team has a lot more in store. It is currently working on scaling-up the craft to its final form—a boat that can carry four to six passengers. The larger vessel is already being built in Amsterdam, but MIT hasn’t said when it will be ready for real-world testing.
Meanwhile, the team also hopes to equip its autonomous boats with better software. Researchers are designing algorithms that allow the boats to respond to unexpected challenges like currents and waves.
For self-driving cars, the road is stable and unchanging. Boats don’t have that luxury.
As such, having these algorithms on board will be a big step towards making the next version of the Roboat even safer.
Vehicle autonomy, which once seemed like science fiction, is quickly becoming reality. Within the decade, self-driving cars might not be the only autonomous form of transportation that people can choose. If CSAIL has anything to say about it, boats will be on the list as well.