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Printable autonomous boats

May 25, 2018

The future of transportation in waterway-rich cities such as Amsterdam, Bangkok, and Venice — where canals run alongside and under bustling streets and bridges — may include autonomous boats that ferry goods and people, helping clear up road congestion.

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), have taken a step toward that future by designing a fleet of autonomous boats that offer high maneuverability and precise control. The boats can also be rapidly 3-D printed using a low-cost printer, making mass manufacturing more feasible.

The boats could be used to taxi people around and to deliver goods, easing street traffic. In the future, the researchers also envision the driverless boats being adapted to perform city services overnight, instead of during busy daylight hours, further reducing congestion on both roads and canals.

“Imagine shifting some of infrastructure services that usually take place during the day on the road — deliveries, garbage management, waste management — to the middle of the night, on the water, using a fleet of autonomous boats,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, co-author on a paper describing the technology that’s being presented at this week’s IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

Moreover, the boats — rectangular 4-by-2-meter hulls equipped with sensors, microcontrollers, GPS modules, and other hardware — could be programmed to self-assemble into floating bridges, concert stages, platforms for food markets, and other structures in a matter of hours. “Again, some of the activities that are usually taking place on land, and that cause disturbance in how the city moves, can be done on a temporary basis on the water,” says Rus, who is the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The boats could also be equipped with environmental sensors to monitor a city’s waters and gain insight into urban and human health.

Co-authors on the paper are: first author Wei Wang, a joint postdoc in CSAIL and the Senseable City Lab; Luis A. Mateos and Shinkyu Park, both DUSP postdocs; Pietro Leoni, a research fellow, and Fábio Duarte, a research scientist, both in DUSP and the Senseable City Lab; Banti Gheneti, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Carlo Ratti, a principal investigator and professor of the practice in the DUSP and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab.

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