The roboats, due to be launched in the Dutch capital next year, are part of a five-year pilot to activate the city’s canals and address transportation, mobility and water quality in Amsterdam. The pilot will reveal the extent to which self-driving roboats can transport people and goods through the city. The project, which has received €25 million (US $27 million) in funding, claims to be the world’s first research program on autonomous floating vessels in metropolitan areas, and the first prototype is expected to hit the city’s canals in 2017.

Dotted with over 100 kilometers (62 miles) of canals that were built as early as the 17th century, about one quarter of Amsterdam is made up of water, although the city’s canals are largely used for tourism and recreation today. According to the city’s alderman and vice mayor Kajsa Ollongren, the project is a “fantastic opportunity” for the City of Amsterdam, which has always had strong linkages between water and technology.

roboatsThe roboats are designed to serve as modular bridges or stages that can be assembled on demand. “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,” says MIT Professor and principal investigator on the Roboat program Carlo Ratti in a press statement.

The boats will likely be programmed to carry out other functions as well, including gathering data about the air quality, water quality and noise. Through the project, the team also aims to find ways to detect diseases at early stages as well as find a way of “…dredging out the 12,000 bicycles a year which end up in the Dutch city’s canals.”

The project is a collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS), Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University.


All photos courtesy of MIT Senseable City Lab/AMS.

AMS Institute’s Scientific Director Arjan van Timmeren explains that the team will also be exploring the potential commercial applications of the system. With 80% of global economic output occurring around coastal and delta areas, and with almost 60% of the world’s population clustered around these areas, the researchers anticipate that the Roboat program could become a reference for programs in other cities. “Roboat offers enormous possibilities,” says van Timmeren. “We’ll also be exploring environmental sensing. We could for instance do further research on underwater robots that can detect diseases at an early stage or use Roboats to rid the canals from floating waste,” he explains.

As large tech companies continue to invest in self-driving technology for cars, buses and trucks, others have made autonomous sailboats a reality. Earlier this year, the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Program IntCatch used boat drones to test and analyze the quality of four rivers and lakes across Europe.