Get ready, self-driving boats are coming, too

When it comes to autonomous vehicles, why stop on land when you can expand to the sea?

That's the thinking of MIT and Amsterdam's Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute). The two organizations announced on Monday they have joined forces to create the cleverly named Roboat to explore the possibilities of creating self-driving boats. They aim to have the first prototypes in Amsterdam's waters next year.

The boats would be used for basic transportation, but would also be capable of much more.

“Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people,” says Carlo Ratti, professor at MIT and principal investigator in the Roboat program, in a statement announcing the partnership. “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.”

As part of the research project, MIT will be contributing €20 million out of a five-year budget of €25 million (about $27.9 million), and while the project will be based in Amsterdam, the group hopes to apply its findings to other urban areas around the world.

In addition to self-driving boats, the Roboat team also hopes the work will help with other environmental issues, including tracking diseases or using the boats to help with the country's bike problem. About 12,000 bicycles wind up in the city’s canals each year, and the Roboats could possibly be used to help find and remove them, according to AMS Institute Scientific Director Arjan van Timmeren.

Self-driving boats are just the latest autonomous vehicles making waves in recent days. Last week, Uber began its self-driving car program in Pittsburgh, while startup Comma.ai announced a $999 aftermarket system that would potentially allow people to turn their own cars into autonomous vehicles. It plans to ship its first product at the end of the year.

On Sunday Uber-rival Lyft announced that it expects its fleet to be largely autonomous within five years.

Think you might need a bigger boat? In March, Rolls-Royce announced that is working with Finnish researchers to develop unmanned, remote-controlled transport ships that could traverse the seas delivering cargo.


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