Fleet of Autonomous Boats Can Now Shapeshift, Which Is Nice, For Science

Image: MIT News Office
BoatlopnikBecause boats are cars too

In news that certainly doesn’t spell our doom, MIT’s fleet of autonomous boats can now break apart and reform into new configurations on their own. Great.

My first problem with this marvelous innovation is that MIT and its partner, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, calls the autonomous floating structures “roboats” which makes this technology sound like an innocent, leisurely activity, like something you do every golden summer on the lake. Instead, they actually look like poorly thought out high-tech pool toys:

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Okay, they don’t look all that sinister, but hardly anything does at one-quarter its normal size. Scaled up to their full-size, 4 meters long, 2 meters wide glory these things have the potential to change the very fabric of the city, hopefully for the better, at least before they become sentient. The vision for the roboats is that they’ll step in and provide temporary bridges to help alleviate traffic, ferry goods, people or garbage through the city’s canals, or turn into platforms for performances or events.

The shapeshifting element comes in the form of an algorithm that enables the roboats to smoothly attach and detach themselves from other units as efficiently as possible. The platforms have autonomous latching mechanism that are programed to target and clasp on to each other, and to keep attempting to join if it doesn’t work the first time. This allows “shapeshifting” in that the barges can join or break apart as needed.

Giving all of the roboats complete autonomy proved cumbersome, so the scientists created two units: coordinators and workers. Multiple workers are able to attach to a single coordinator, which is equipped with a GPS for navigation, and an inertial measurement unit for measuring...inertia. Coordinators stay in constant communication with the workers and can link together with other coordinators to form super structures as needed.

Cool. Hopefully they won’t all unite against the humans literally walking all over them and send out their worker drones to clog the waterways of Amsterdam and then, someday, the world.

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Erin Marquis

Managing Editor of Jalopnik.