Move Along, Self-Driving Cars: MIT Is Working On Autonomous Boats

And they’re not above puns. It’s called the Roboat.

The debate around self-driving cars has continued to escalate as they hit the road this month in Pittsburgh. But what about other kinds of vehicles that could benefit from similar technology?


MIT’s Senseable City Lab and AMS, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, have come together to explore the idea of self-driving boats. Along with researchers from Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University and Research, the City of Amsterdam, and the city’s public water utility company Waternet, the two groups recently launched a new project called Roboat, which will deploy a fleet of autonomous vessels into the extensive canals and waterways of the Dutch capital.

“We want to start testing autonomous boats in an urban context–an unprecedented result which could potentially give us useful insights for all those cities and metropolis facing ports, rivers, or waterways,” says Carlo Ratti, one of MIT’s principal investigators on the project. Ratti says that they’re hoping to begin testing autonomous boats into the canals within the year, with the project to last a total of five years.

While part of the project aims to test out technology for the world’s first fleet of self-driving boats, the vessels will also be equipped with environmental sensors that will monitor the city’s water by providing chemical analysis which could help the scientists understand the health of the human population and the urban environment.

Along with transporting people and goods around the city, the Roboats could also be used to create what Ratti calls “dynamic infrastructure”–they can be bound together to create pop-up public spaces, like bridges or even stages for concerts. Ratti hopes they’ll encourage a sharing attitude towards boats that normally sit idle on the sides of canals: they too could be looped into this kind of floating public space, similar to the Festa del Redentore in Venice, Italy, when the Venetians string together a 300-meter bridge of barges over one of the city’s largest canals.

With an aim to put a prototype in the water in 2017, plenty of questions still remain about how the boats’ technology will work–and how they’ll be designed for use as transportation vehicles, temporary infrastructure, and environmental sensors.

From a policy perspective, self-driving cars face a mess of questions about safety and responsibility. But autonomous vehicles on the water are a little more straightforward, Ratti says, both because of their slower speeds and because waterways are less crowded and dangerous than roads. The Roboats may even help reduce boat accidents, of which there were more than 4,000 last year, resulting in 600 deaths.


The project is just beginning. But in the future, it may be increasingly rare to see a person behind the wheel of the vessels that populate Amsterdam’s busy canal network.

[All Images: MIT Senseable City Lab]

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.