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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.

The Conversation (0)
Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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