Shape-shifting Boats and Where to Find Them

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Row boats? Sure, we've all seen them. Roboats? Well, there's something new.

For several years now, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has worked in partnership with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) to develop autonomous boats, nicknamed "roboats." This project ultimately aims to stock Amsterdam's canals with the self-driving vehicles to relieve traffic congestion by transporting people and goods, collecting trash and – as of recently – self-assembling into "pop-up platforms," according to a news release from MIT. The project is slated to last five years.

How They Do It

MIT researchers presented a paper at the end of August detailing how they enabled their roboats to reshape themselves as smoothly and efficiently as possible. Through an algorithm, groups of roboat units are able to unlatch from each other and reconfigure without colliding or straying from their overall direction.

The boats can reassemble themselves from straight lines or squares into rectangles, "L" shapes and other configurations, according to the MIT press release. In experiments, these reconfigurations only took a few minutes to complete.

"More complex shapeshifts may take longer, depending on the number of moving units – which could be dozens – and differences between the two shapes," the release stated.

What's the Point?

The scientists working on this particular trick are hoping it can allow the units to build bridges or platforms when necessary in the Amsterdam canals, according to MIT professor Daniela Rus, who co-wrote the paper produced by roboat researchers last month.

"We've enabled the roboats to now make and break connections with other roboats, with hopes of activities on the streets of Amsterdam to the water," Rus said in the MIT release. "A set of boats can come together to form linear shapes as pop-up bridges, if we need to send materials or people from one side of a canal to the other. Or, we can create pop-up wider platforms for flower or food markets."

Potential Impact in Amsterdam

The MIT and AMS Institute roboat team aims to start implementing this technology in Amsterdam starting next year, according to reporting from TechCrunch. Researchers hope to build a bridge that can reassemble itself to stretch across the nearly 200-foot canal connecting the NEMO Science Museum to a nearby neighborhood.

This project and others like it should reduce the impact of traffic congestion in Amsterdam, much like how self-driving cars should reduce the same impact in other major cities around the world. According to a release from the AMS Institute, the roboat project "represents a fantastic opportunity and privilege for the city of Amsterdam to have the world's most prominent scientists work on solutions with autonomous boats – especially in a location were water and technology have been linked for ages."

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About the Author

Brenna Swanston is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. She covers topics including environment, education and agriculture. She previously reported for the Sun newspaper in Santa Maria, Calif., and holds a bachelor's in journalism from California Polytechnic State University. Swanston is an avid traveler and loves jazz, yoga and craft beer.