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Autonomous Boats Seem More Solvable Than Autonomous Cars

MIT's Roboats will find useful applications in Amsterdam canals

2 min read
A silver robotic boat hangs from a yellow crane over an Amsterdam canal

It's become painfully obvious over the past few years just how difficult fully autonomous cars are. This isn't a dig at any of the companies developing autonomous cars (unless they're the sort of company who keeps on making ludicrous promises about full autonomy, of course)— it's just that the real world is a complex place for full autonomy, and despite the relatively well constrained nature of roads, there's still too much unpredictability for robots to operate comfortably outside of relatively narrow restrictions.

Where autonomous vehicles have had the most success is in environments with a lot of predictability and structure, which is why I really like the idea of autonomous urban boats designed for cities with canals. MIT has been working on these for years, and they're about to introduce them to the canals of Amsterdam as cargo shuttles and taxis.

MIT's Roboat design goes back to 2015, when it began with a series of small-scale experiments that involved autonomous docking of swarms of many shoebox-sized Roboats to create self-assembling aquatic structures like bridges and concert stages. Eventually, Roboats were scaled up, and by 2020 MIT had a version large enough to support a human.

But the goal was always to make a version of Roboat the size of what we think of when we think of boats—like, something that humans can sit comfortably in. That version of Roboat, measuring 4m by 2m, was ready to go by late last year, and it's pretty slick looking:

The Roboat (named Lucy) is battery powered and fully autonomous, navigating through Amsterdam's canals using lidar to localize on a pre-existing map along with cameras and ultrasonic sensors for obstacle detection and avoidance. Compared to roads, this canal environment is relatively low speed, and you're much less likely to have an encounter with a pedestrian. Other challenges are also mitigated, like having to worry about variability in lane markings. I would guess that there are plenty of unique challenges as well, including the fact that other traffic may not be obeying the same rigorous rules that cars are expected to, but overall it seems like a pretty good environment in which to operate a large autonomous system.

The public demo in Amsterdam kicks off tomorrow, and by the end of 2021, the hope is to have two boats in the water. The second boat will be a cargo boat, which will be used to test out things like waste removal while also providing an opportunity to test docking procedures between two Roboat platforms, eventually leading to the creation of useful floating structures.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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