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Autonomous Boats Are Using Lidar to Traverse the Canals of Amsterdam

Autonomous "Roboat" in Amsterdam

Amsterdam, and The Netherlands more broadly, are world-renowned for the many urban canals and the boats that navigate them.

But a boat traveling safely down a Dutch canal without a captain is not a common sight. At least not until the lidar-powered Roboat came along. 

Formed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute), Roboat, the company cleverly named after its debut product, is developing zero-emission, electrically powered autonomous boats. These versatile vessels can carry passengers and goods, perform surveys of canal infrastructure and water quality, collect garbage from residents on the shore, and even function as a temporary footbridge for people to walk across in a pinch. 

What are the advantages of an autonomous boat over a human-piloted one? For one thing, it can roam the waters 24 hours a day, seven days a week without needing to stop and rotate pilots. Also, with less space dedicated to human controls and a pilot’s wheel, there’s more space for passengers, goods, and hi-tech hardware. 

Roboats equipped with garbage collectors can ferry waste without using up any space on the roads. Roboat’s creators say their autonomous boats could serve up to 70 percent of Amsterdam residential garbage collection needs.

And what about the idea of using Roboats as a pop-up footbridge? The Roboat website shows off a concept where several Roboats with flat tops are joined together in a row across a canal, allowing people to walk across. As the website says, “Roboat can respond in real-time to human behaviour and the ebb and flow of rush hour traffic.” 

Roboat began as a research project in 2015 and as of late 2021, has two full-size prototype boats (nicknamed Lucy and Crystal) floating around Amsterdam and testing the capabilities of the technology. 

Lucy is a passenger Roboat and can carry up to six people. It’s designed to work as part of an “on-demand” personal transportation service, similar to a ride-hail app, or as a fixed-route ferry service, while Crystal is the garbage collector prototype. 

“The historic centre of Amsterdam with its network of canals and modern-day challenges – such as congestion and logistics – are a perfect place to start the real-life pilots aimed at creating more sustainable and smart transport over water,” said Stephan van Dijk, Director of Innovation at the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, in a statement published online. Indeed, Amsterdam alone has 165 canals. 

How do these autonomous watercrafts safely navigate the canals of Amsterdam on their own, taking care to avoid other human-piloted boats, pillars, docks, and other floating objects?

The technology involved is similar to that of safe self-driving cars on land. Roboat uses lidar, a sensor that directs laser beams 360 degrees around itself and records the time it takes to reflect off surrounding objects, using this information to create 3D depth maps of its environment, called point clouds. 

Autonomous Roboat Lidar

The autonomous boats are also equipped with cameras, global positioning system (GPS) sensors, and digital compasses. As with self-driving cars, each Roboat watercraft utilizes an onboard computer with specialized software that combines all the data it gathers from the multiple, disparate exterior sensors in a process called “sensor fusion,” weaving it together to create a highly detailed, accurate, and constantly updated picture of the world around it.

However, water is a starkly different environment from land to navigate and traverse, and comes with its own set of challenges.  

Roboat’s autonomous system must adjust each craft’s position instantly for frequent and sudden shifts in wind, current and waves, all while maintaining a safe and efficient path to its destination.

The Roboat is also designed to “autonomously steer and latch itself to appropriate docking stations,” with robotic arms aboard each boat.

Ultimately, Roboat’s creators hope that their technology doesn’t just provide a variation or slight improvement on the type of boating service as we have now with human piloted crafts, but rather, that it unlocks a whole new set of possibilities for canal-rich cities such as Amsterdam. 

As Van Dijk and his colleagues at Roboat, Tom Benson and Michael Batty, wrote in an article on Medium: “Depending on demand and the required functionality, the Roboats can go where needed, freely moving throughout the extensive canal system. The spaces created by the vessels can provide the city with spaces to enhance social life, enabling new places for people to meet people and bringing various cultures together “ 

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