The Netherlands is known as the number one cyclist nation in Europe, and Amsterdam is also famous for its bicycles. Of course, not all residents or tourists travel on two wheels, there are also lots of cars, trucks, and delivery vans that clog up the streets just like in other cities. But since Amsterdam is also the city of the famous “Grachten”, the canals that run throughout the Dutch capital, the city council has now come up with a way to improve traffic flow. The magic word here is autonomous driving. 25 % of the total area of the Dutch metropolis is made up of water and in the future, autonomous boats, so-called “Roboats”, will operate on the canals alongside conventional boats.
Roboat has been a joint project between the AMS Institute, MIT, and the City of Amsterdam from the very beginning, says Marten Grupstra of the Amsterdam City Council. “Faculty members and researchers used to meet in different forums where the impact of autonomous vehicles was discussed. The question that was raised was whether Amsterdam needed to invest in driverless cars when they have the advantage of a network of canals? Why not use autonomous boats? We soon realized that on top of the benefits to the city, the technological challenges of autonomous navigation, particularly in urban areas, could foster innovation and opportunities.”
Safety is a top priority: sensors, GPS, cameras
The first Roboat was already tested in 2016 and covered a pre-programmed distance autonomously. But the vehicles that are now planned can do much more: they communicate with each other and, if necessary, can form a longer chain, in order to take several more passengers to a specific destination.
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In order to prevent accidents and enable safe navigation, the Roboats are equipped with sensors, GPS modules, cameras, and microcontrollers. “When the Roboat vessel encounters an object in the water, Roboat can determine whether it is a stationary or moving object and how far away the object is,” explains Grupstra. “This is done with the help of LIDAR (Laser Image Detection and Ranging), supplemented with camera imaging and GPS sensors. The vessel then determines the best maneuver to avoid the obstacle. After passing the obstacle it continues on its optimal route.”
This so-called motion planner is self-educational and adapts its abilities based on experience of how the maneuvers are executed, so as to keep improving mobility in the future. “Besides this, algorithms learn to recognize the behavior of different types of objects as well as other boats on the water. The more hours the vessel navigates the canals, the better the estimates become.”
The danger of hacker attacks is as great or as small with Roboats as it is with any driverless car, Grupstra stresses. That’s why part of the industry working on autonomous vehicles puts a lot of effort into cybersecurity. In the unlikely event of an accident or emergency, passengers can be helped just as quickly as on a road. “The maximum speed in Amsterdam’s canals is 6 km/h. Which provides a safe environment compared to the streets of Amsterdam, or any other city. The advantage of Roboat is that it will be navigating in a dense urban area. In case of an – unlikely – incident, medical services are close at hand —closer than any similarly-unlikely accident with driverless cars that are active farther away.”
No substitute for road traffic
The possibilities of the electrically driven Roboats are manifold. Passengers can register their destinations to a control center. The boat routes are then planned in such a way that as many passengers as possible can be transported to the same destination, or destinations that are close together. At night, they can collect garbage. In the future, however, the boats will not only be used for transporting people and goods, but also as temporary pedestrian bridges, market squares, or stages at festivals. In addition, the boats collect data on air and water pollution; the batteries are charged at specially equipped onshore charging stations.
Roboats are not intended to replace road traffic, but they could reduce the pressure on the city if the infrastructure of the canals were better used, emphasizes the Dutchman. “Hypothetically, we could remove household waste in the city center with 48 floating dumpsters and 16 Roboats. This is much less than the trucks currently used to collect trash, which also slows down traffic and damages the infrastructure holding the historic canals’ walls.”
One problem that researchers still have to resolve in future – autonomous vehicles don’t seem to count when it comes to Roboats in Amsterdam: How do autonomous boats communicate with the human captains of traditional boats that will also still travel on the canals?
“More and more boats navigating Amsterdam’s canals have unmanned communication devices, whereby they know the location of other boats, the free docking spots, and are able to get permission to access specific areas,” Grupstra says. “The city is putting a great effort in creating ‘digital canals’ and advancing traffic management on the water. This means i.e. that boats in Amsterdam are required to have GPS tracking sensors on board, as well as sensors in bridges for estimating and observing traffic on the canals. Roboat is incorporating similar technology that allows it to see -and be seen by- all boats in Amsterdam.”
Five-year research project
Roboat is a five-year research project and a collaboration between the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, the City of Amsterdam, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the boats were developed and tested in the in-house swimming pool. Starting from a distance of one meter, models of the boats connected within ten seconds without external help. According to Grupstra, the cooperation with MIT was self-evident because of a long-term academic partnership between the TU Delft and Wageningen UR, the founding fathers of AMS Institute in the Netherlands. “AMS Institute works on urban innovation for the city of Amsterdam. MIT is renowned for their innovative research in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence and urban design—the key areas needed to develop Roboat.”
After the end of the project, there shall be five full-scale vessels in Amsterdam, says Grupstra. But then it would be up to the commercial partners “to deploy the developed Roboat technology on a larger scale and offer autonomous water transportation solutions to the market (and in the city).”
And what is the first interim assessment at the halfway point of the project? “The project began in November 2016,” Grupstra concludes. “We have already reached important milestones in automation that have brought Roboat to the forefront of autonomous navigation worldwide, including 100% autonomy, from dock to dock, without human intervention; multi-ship steering (each boat knows where the others are and coordinates its position and movements accordingly); multi-vessel coordination and shape adaption; along with locking and docking capabilities.”
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