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Next Up: Self-Driving Boats, Because of Course

In cities like Amsterdam, “Roboats” could also function as temporary floating infrastructure.

MIT Senseable City Lab / AMS Institute

Autonomous cars are barely even here, but in Amsterdam, they’re already moving on to something else: self-driving boats.

As part of a new collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions announced Monday that it will host a major new trial of autonomous boats. Called Roboats—what else?—versions of the new vehicle should hit the Dutch capital’s canals in 2017. Unfolding over five years, the project hopes ultimately to develop a fleet of un-captained boats that can be used for deliveries, transit and leisure along what remain some of the busiest stretches of urban water in the world.

While the €25 million ($27.9 million) project is exciting, no one should expect the research—conducted together by MIT, Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University and Research—to create elegant, streamlined pleasure craft. Provisional renderings depict Roboats as flat, rectangular, pontoon-like structures, more like moving quaysides than any craft designed for speed as such. If the trials are successful, the boats could nonetheless provide an excellent way of delivering goods cleanly within a congested, heavily-built up area. Not only would the frequency of collisions be theoretically lowered once human error is removed, the streets of central Amsterdam could be substantially relieved of goods vehicles clogging the road network and polluting the air.

The thought of what might look to the casual observer to be ghost ships calmly and efficiently delivering their cargo along urban waterways is appealing enough, but that’s only the beginning of Roboat’s ambition. In a press release, Carlo Ratti, a professor at MIT and principal investigator in the program, encourages us to:

“Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people – but also think of dynamic and temporary floating infrastructure like on-demand bridges and stages, that can be assembled or disassembled in a matter of hours.”

In other words, Roboats could be far more than just vehicles alone. They could be motor-propelled multi-purpose pontoons, assembled within hours to, say, extend the shoreline during a period when crowds are expected to pack an embankment. Today’s Parool newspaper, for example, imagines a Justin Bieber concert thronging the banks of the River IJ with listeners as Bieber himself floats down the waterway (an image that suggests an optimism about both the future of autonomous boats and the longevity of the singer’s career). Still, it’s intriguing to imagine Roboats less as delivery vehicles and more as a form of temporary architecture that could allow both spontaneity and infinite improvisations.

Roboats being assembled to form a temporary bridge. (MIT Senseable City Lab / AMS Institute)

During the five-year trial project, Roboats will also act as information-gatherers, floating sensors recording information on air and water quality. They might at some point in the future even detect waterborne diseases, allowing action before an outbreak has a chance to hit the population. They could also, with adaptation, dredge canals of drowned bicycles (Amsterdam fishes out 12,000 of these annually) or sweep waterways for surface debris.

The idea of bridges that could be summoned as if from nowhere might seem almost magical now. People of the future, however, will no doubt look back and laugh at our amazement, regarding us as we might look at time-traveling medieval peasants, groveling in awe when confronted with a vacuum cleaner. Indeed, within a decade or so, such vehicles could become so common on urban waterways that the casual observer forgets even to notice them.

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