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
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.
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