Researchers at MIT have created a prototype of an autonomous robotic boats that can target and connect to each other, like Voltron.
At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation, the team presented a paper describing the technology they called "roboats." It uses control algorithms that guides a roboat toward the target and automatically connect to a latching mechanism with precision. If the roboat notices missed connectiion, it can back up and try again.
Roboat is the product of the collaboration
between MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolita Solutions of AMS Institute. The goal is to create a fleet of autonomous robotic boats
that will one day cruise the many canals in the city of Amsterdam
"In Amsterdam, canals were once used for transportation and other things the roads are now used for. Roads near canals are now very congested — and have noise and pollution — so the city wants to add more functionality back to the canals," explained
Luis Mateos, a researcher at MIT's Senseable City Lab. "Self-driving technologies
can save time, costs and energy, and improve the city moving forward."
Autonomous Robotic Boats That Connect To Each Other
Each roboat has a ball-and-socket latching mechanism at its front, back, and sides. The socket has a wide funnel that guides the ball into a receptor, a laser beam that detects the ball, and a mechanism with three arms that captures the ball. The roboats are also equipped with their own cameras and a LIDAR system that enables it to autonomously navigate the canals.
The docking station, meanwhile, uses a sheet of paper that has an augmented reality tag called AprilTag. This enables the roboats to detect and compute their position then reorient themselves if needed.
The researchers already tested the latching mechanism in a swimming pool at MIT and at the Charles River. They reported that the roboats were able to connect within 10 seconds starting from around 1 meter away. The roboats also experienced a few failed attempts, but latched on successfully later on.
"The new latching mechanism is very important for creating pop-up structures," explained Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory or SAIL. "Roboat does not need latching for autonomous transporation on water, but you need the latching to create any structure, whether it's mobile or fixed."
Roboats In Amsterdam
The researchers envision the roboats to one day be deployed and act as mini-barges that collect garbage across the city overnight. They can latch on to platforms holding trash containers and then deliver them to collection facilities.
In the long-term, a fleet of roboats could join up and create larger urban infrastructure, including stages for concerts and outdoor markets, as needed.
The researchers are already on the process of designing new roboats that are roughly four times bigger than the current iterations.