When it comes to reducing the number of vehicles on its roads, Amsterdam has a method that not many other cities can offer — taking to the canals. The city has been using its waterways for transport since long before the internal combustion engine even existed. Back in 2016, MIT and the Netherlands’ Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) announced a new collaboration that would provide a cleaner, safer option for water transport in the city — a self-driving electric boat dubbed the Roboat. Now that project is reaching fruition, with trials of the futuristic boat concept about to start.
A new slewing crane has been erected at Marineterrein Amsterdam which allows for the first full-scale prototype of the Roboat to be tested, and is a precursor to further trials with the electric boat in other parts of the city.
Roboats are autonomous vehicles without human drivers on board. They have 4 thrusters that are powered by an electric battery and will travel at a speed or around 4 mph (6 kph). Depending on the type of battery and the cargo load, the Roboat will be able to run for between 12 and 24 hours. Steering is managed remotely by a computer which uses cameras and sensors to scan the area around the vessel to detect moving and stationary objects. Roboats are also modular in design, meaning they can adapted for different use cases such as carrying workers or cargo.
There are a broad number of use cases planned for the Roboats, such as passenger transport, refuse collection, and food delivery. There are a number of key benefits to using this new technology. Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at the Amsterdam institute, explained that the technology is “very relevant in highly complex port operations, where you have a lot of vessels and a lot of ships and a lot of quays and piers. There you can really improve the safety with autonomous systems, but also make it more efficient and into a 24/7 operations approach.”
Even though the first trials are currently underway, it will be a little while before the boats become commonplace on the waterways. Developers have stated that it will take between two and four years before the self-steering technology is perfected.
Mechatronics engineer Rens Doornbusch clarified this cautious approach: “It’s mostly because we want to be absolutely sure that we can navigate safely in the canals. Right now we have the autonomy in place, but one of the next steps is to make sure that we can actually handle any kind of situation that we might encounter in the canals.”
It’s not only the safety and technological aspects that need to be addressed, there are also legislative hurdles to clear. Van Dijk assures that these challenges are being met. “We are actively working together with the ministries and the legislators to identify what specific legal aspects have to be changed to allow for fully autonomous operation,” he said. In case there are concerns around privacy and the use of data from its scanners and cameras, Van Dijk says that they have been developed “in such a way that we are not identifying any persons that are walking on the roads. So in that sense, privacy is being secured.”
Image courtesy Roboat