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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions are collaborating on a ‘Roboat’ project, having recently updated their fleet of robotic boats: these now have new capabilities enabling them to ‘shapeshift’, by autonomously disconnecting and reassembling into a variety of configurations such as pop-up bridges.

Termed ‘roboats’, these robotic boats are rectangular hulls which are equipped ‘with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras and other hardware’. They now have newly-developed added capabilities which allow them to ‘change configurations to form pop-up bridges, stages, and other structures’, ensuring they can form floating structures in many canals based in Amsterdam, Holland. This is being done with the vision of the city, in the foreseeable future, being equipped with ‘roboats’ which cruise its various 165 winding canals, being designed to transport goods and people, collect trash, as well as self-assemble into pop-up platforms such as bridges and stages as to help relieve congestion on the city’s streets.

The project’s researchers developed an algorithm which enables the ‘roboats’ to ‘smoothly reshape themselves as efficiently as possible’, ensuring that groups of ‘roboat’ units can unlatch from one another in one set configuration, then proceed to travel a collision-free path, before subsequently reattaching to their appropriate spot on the new set configuration. To overcome potential challenges with autonomous planning, tracking and connecting groups of ‘roboat’ units, the researchers gave each unit unique capabilities to locate each other, agree on how to break apart and reform, and move around freely.

Students applying to Materials Science, along with applicants for Engineering or for Computer Science, with a particular interest in artificial intelligence, can delve deeper into research on innovative projects such as this one, considering how further scientific research can continue to advance these technologies for the benefit of more efficient yet sustainable cities for the future.

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