Tag Archives: ‘Roboats’

MIT’s Autonomous ‘Roboats’ Learn to Shapeshift

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Self-driving cars may be the future for most cities, but Amsterdam is about one-quarter water thanks to its extensive canal network. So, maybe autonomous boats are worth exploring? MIT has been working with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) to create just that. When we last checked in on the so-called “Roboat” vessels, they had just learned to reliably link up while floating on water. Now, MIT reports Roboats can shapeshift into different conformations in just a few minutes. 

Each individual Roboat is a fully fledged vessel, but the idea is not to have you hop on a single boat and use it as a taxi. From the start, MIT and AMS Institute have worked toward a multi-use role for the robotic vessels. Rather than designing different boats for different tasks, the Roboats can link up to become whatever people need. They could form bridges, stages, cargo transports, and floating busses. 

Progress has been swift for the Roboat project. In 2016, MIT tested a prototype boat that could move along pre-programmed routes. In 2018, it developed a method to 3D print the boats and tested advanced location tracking algorithms. Earlier this year, MIT and AMS Institute demoed the latching system that lets the robots link together on the water. 

The latest advance adds a layer of complexity to the Roboat docking system, marking a major step toward the goals of the project. MIT says it has developed new algorithms that allow the boats to smoothly reshape themselves in a few minutes. So, controllers can ask for a confirmation of Roboats like lines, squares, and L-shapes. The boats talk amongst themselves and determine the best way to morph into the desired shape. 

Testing the automated latching.

The shapes demonstrated in a pool at MIT are admittedly simple, consisting of just a handful of boats. However, the programming that went into it is still incredibly complex. Engineers had to make sure each boat was aware of its location relative to others, as well as how the group could move while shapeshifting to avoid collisions. To make that happen, the team created a division of labor. Both classes of Roboat have four propellers, wireless communication gear, and multiple docking hardpoints. The coordinators also have GPS and inertial measurement units (IMUs) that allow them to form the “core” of a structure. One or more worker Roboats connect to the coordinator and use actuators to help steer it. 

The current Roboats are one-quarter scale versions of the planned units. They’re about one meter long and half a meter wide. The team believes the trajectory-planning algorithms developed for the smaller boats will scale up to the full-sized ones when they exist in a few years.

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MIT and Amsterdam Partner on Autonomous ‘Roboats’

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While most cities are revving up to get self-driving cars on the roads, Amsterdam is more interested in autonomous boats. The Dutch city is about one-quarter water thanks to its massive network of canals, and it has visions of robotic boats cruising those waterways. The city is working with MIT to make that vision a reality with the cleverly named “Roboats.”

The idea is to equip the small rectangular vessels with sensors, propellers, microcontrollers, GPS, cameras, and other hardware and turn them loose to provide on-demand transportation of goods and people will help clear Amsterdam’s clogged streets. The designers also envision multiple boats linking together to form temporary footbridges, performance stages, and even floating marketplaces. The key to all of this is designing robots that can reliably navigate and link up to each other while floating on the water.

The Roboats have lidar and cameras to help them navigate around complex environments, not unlike self-driving cars. The boats have small printed augmented reality tags known as AprilTag, which look like simplified QR codes. Other boats can see these tags and use them for orientation when docking.

Each Roboat has a latching mechanism with ball and socket components on the front, back, and sides. Docking two robots together is harder when they’re floating on water, which moves in unpredictable ways. So, the sockets have cone-shaped guides that help line up the robots if they’re a couple of inches off on the rendezvous. The cone has a laser sensor inside that registers when another Roboat docks. It triggers a mechanism that locks the boats together until they get the signal to separate.

Canals usually have gentle waves that shouldn’t jostle the robots too much, but MIT researchers are working on ways to compensate for larger disturbances like wakes from other boats. If two Roboats have closed the distance and the laser sensor doesn’t register a successful docking, the robots can back away and try docking again.

The current Roboats are too small for anyone to use for transportation, but they are just prototypes. The team is working on Roboats that are four times larger, offering more stability and power. A new docking mechanism with tentacle-like rubber grippers is in the works as well. That could make the connection between boats strong enough to lug around heavy payloads. The team also wants to replace the printed AprilTags with an LCD that could change to adjust assembly orders.

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