Forget Self-Driving Cars, Amsterdam Will Soon Test Self-Driving Boats

Self-driving boats will be tested on Amsterdam's canals next year

When half the traffic that goes on in the city is done by water, and the other half on bicycles, you tend not to be too interested in all this talk of autonomous technology unless they can apply it to either bikes or boats. The city has more than a hundred kilometers of canals that wind their way throughout what is often referred to as the party capital of the world. Amsterdam is an ideal initial test subject: nearly 25 percent of the city is covered in water, and its network of canals harken back to the days when commerce was conducted primarily through the waterways.

Today, the Amsterdam Institute for Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) announced a new, five-year research initiative to explore the possible functions of these floating robot vehicles.

“Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people, but also think of dynamic and temporary floating infrastructure like on-demand bridges and stages, that can be assembled or disassembled in a matter of hours”, said MIT professor Carlo Ratti in a statement. These Roboats are platforms that should be able to join together to form temporary bridges or extend the shore at times of peak demand, such as during rush hour or during a festival.

The boats aren’t designed for public use, and it’s unlikely that many people will ever see them up-close. He points out that 80 percent of global economic output is found around coastal and delta areas, while that same portion of land is home to 60 percent of the world’s population. “This will help secure the city’s quality of life and lasting functionality”, says Arjan van Timmeren, professor and scientific director at AMS, who also envisions a multitude of possibilities for a network of roboats, from real-time sensing similar to the MIT Underworlds project to retrieving the 12,000 bicycles or cleaning up the floating waste that ends up in the Dutch city’s canals each year.

With almost one-quarter of the city covered by water, Amsterdam is an ideal place for developing ROBOAT, according to the researchers.

Nowadays most boats in the city are recreational.

For example, Roboat is also partnering with the U.S. city of Boston, where sea levels have risen by 10 inches (25 centimetres) since 1921. And perhaps the step after that would be to fill those canals with robot boats.