Self-driving ‘robots’ ready to go in Amsterdam’s canals

AMSTERDAM – Visitors to Amsterdam may soon discover a self-driving watercraft the size of a small car navigating silently through its ancient canals, ferrying passengers or hauling goods or trash.

The electric-powered “Roboat”, a more attractive name than the “autonomous floating vehicle” for a project due to begin soon, will be trial flights aimed at improving transportation options in the crowded city.

“We have a lot of road traffic and congestion, e-commerce, and logistics crowding small city streets,” said Stefan van Dijk, director of innovation at the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Urban Solutions, which designs and engineers Roboat with MIT. Technology (MIT).

“At the same time, we have a lot of open water in the canals…so we have developed a self-driving autonomous ship to help with logistics in the city as well as bringing people around.”

Two people sitting to test a robot in a channel.
Researchers test autonomous boats in the waterways of Amsterdam in the Netherlands on October 27, 2021.
Berochka van de Wou/Reuters

After four years of trials with smaller versions and concept improvements, automakers showcased their first two full-size, functional autos on Wednesday.

One of the vehicle’s first experimental applications will be an unattractive but important task: garbage collection.

The job is usually done by trucks, but it is a safety hazard on narrow city streets and causes traffic jams. Instead, robots positioned at the waterside will act as floating trash containers, returning to base when full.

Van Dyck said the city, which is supporting the project, is studying sites for a pilot garbage collection project starting early next year.

The robots will need to digitally connect to the city’s water traffic department to avoid collisions, but Van Dyck said one big advantage is that they don’t require human drivers and also “see” at night and during the day.

Two researchers sit in a moored, self-driving boat.
One of the first test applications of Roboat vehicles will be garbage collection.
Berochka van de Wou/Reuters

“So we can also use the night time to collect waste and bring building materials into the city, while for example recreational boats are more active during the day,” he said, leading to a better distribution of water traffic.

Technical details of Roboat are in the project website, including battery performance and wireless charging system.

Below the waterline, it operates somewhat like an upside-down aerial drone: two propellers, front and rear thrust, and two thrusters on either side of the bow, allow it to maneuver nimbly, including smooth mooring that would put most human captains to shame. .

Laser imaging on the front, GPS systems on the front and back, and multiple cameras on the sides aid in positioning. The robots are programmed from computers on the beach.

It has not yet been authorized to enter the city’s normal water traffic with passengers. But in the long run, the medium-sized, slightly boxy chassis of the 1,200 kg (2,645 lb) vehicle can be used for passenger, garbage and transport models, and has been developed so that robots can be strapped together.

Attaching the robots, Van Dyck said, would open the door to more one-off uses, such as creating a floating party platform, a temporary bridge, forming a barge, or, in marine versions, forming a circle of robots to aid in containment. Oil leak.

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