Emerging Technologies

Amsterdam is developing a fleet of autonomous boats to reduce city traffic

Tourists boats pass on a canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16, 2018. Picture taken May 16, 2018.  REUTERS/Francois Lenoir - RC1C45323F60

Autonomous floating fleets are flocking to Amsterdam. Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Technological Transformation

Would you ride on a driverless boat?

Perhaps it could take you to work? Or collect your garbage? Or deliver your Friday night takeaway?

In Amsterdam, where 25% of the city surface is water, autonomous floating vessels could soon become a reality.

The Roboat project aims to design and deploy a fleet of autonomous boats to help reduce the stresses of city life. Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Amsterdam’s AMS Institute have tested miniature versions of the vessels: The next phase of the programme will test larger vessels.

In the future, Amsterdammers might take a ride to work on a robotic boat.
Image: MIT and AMS Institute

The project highlights how transportation is increasingly shifting toward automation, and echos the themes explored in the World Economic Forum’s Shaping the Future of Mobility initiative, which discusses how global transport systems can be made safer, cleaner and more inclusive.

The rise of autonomous vehicles.
Image: IHS Markit

Automakers are already racing to build driverless vehicles, and marine specialists across the globe are exploring similar ideas. In Norway’s fjords, autonomous vessels have been tested, while the largest oceans may soon see unmanned container ships. Such vehicles use a range of sensors to scan their surroundings, feed the information to an artificial intelligence system that processes it and then relays the driving instructions.

Researchers are testing miniature versions of autonomous boats on Amsterdam’s canals.
Image: MIT and AMS Institute

The benefits are likely to be wide-ranging, since the United Nations estimates that over 90% of the world’s trade is carried by sea. Even so, some experts have said automating vessels may lead to an increase in hijacking and could make them susceptible to hacking.

Others have expressed concern that regulation won't be able to keep pace with the rapid innovations. The International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee has put marine autonomous surface ships on its agenda and is investigating safety, security, interactions with ports, pilotage, responses to incidents and protection of the marine environment.

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In Amsterdam, the five-year, €25 million ($29 million) Roboat project sees scope for automated vessels to transport goods, people and garbage, as well as collecting data on water quality and pollution levels.

In the city’s Centrum district, where residents currently leave trash on the curb for collection and large trucks create congestion, pollution and noise on the historic streets, the Roboats could serve as “floating dumpsters” that carry the waste away. The researchers said 70% of the district could be served in this way.

‘On-demand infrastructure’: the boats can form temporary bridges.
Image: MIT and AMS Institute

And the technology has some other innovative uses, that the researchers call “on-demand infrastructure”. For example on busy routes, during rush hour, the boats could form a temporary bridge to relieve pressure on roads or they can link together to create a floating podium for concerts or temporary markets.

“We imagine this use of autonomous boats could promote healthier food and create new public spaces for Amsterdam,” the researchers wrote on their website.

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Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesSupply Chains and Transportation
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