MIT’s autonomous water cabs are almost ready to take to the canals

Autonomous cars may be all the rage now in the world of land transportation but over the course of the last four years, some researchers at MIT have been busy developing a different kind of self-driving vehicle. Enter the Roboat — a smart boat that navigates on its own to transport passengers and goods around waterways.

Since 2016, as part of a joint effort between MIT and a Dutch research institute, a team of scientists has been working on a fleet of autonomous boats to be deployed on canals. Four years later, the device has now gotten an upgrade in both its size and navigation technology, getting it closer to its maiden voyage expected to take place next year.

The new version, called Roboat II, is twice the size of previous models at almost 7 feet long, meaning that the robotic boat is finally big enough to carry passengers. The researchers demonstrated that by piloting the boats on the winding canals of Amsterdam.

Apart from the upgrade in size, the team also created navigation and control algorithms to update the communication and collaboration among the boats, enabling them to dock together in different arrangements and move together like a swarm.

“The development of an autonomous boat system capable of accurate mapping, robust control, and human transport is a crucial step towards having the system implemented in the full-scale Roboat,” says Wei Wang, lead author of the study. “We also hope it will eventually be implemented in other boats in order to make them autonomous.”

The ultimate goal is to have a kind of water-based Uber-like service, where riders could place an order on their phone and have the closest autonomous boat in the area come pick them up.

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