A team of researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, in collaboration with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, have developed and tested prototypes of driverless boats which can be rapidly produced using low-cost 3D printing.

Researchers printed the 4m x 2m rectangular hulls in 16 sections which took just 60 hours. The completed hull is then sealed by adhering several layers of fibreglass. Integrated into the hull are a power supply, Wi-Fi antenna, GPS and a minicomputer and microcontroller. For precise positioning, the research team incorporated an indoor ultrasound beacon system and outdoor real-time kinematic GPS modules that allow centimeter-level localisation.

The boat’s rectangular shape, as opposed to the traditional kayak or catamaran shapes, allows the vessel to move sideways and attach itself to other boats when assembling temporary structures. The key there is placement of the thrusters. Rather than a traditional design with thruster at each of the boat’s four corners, four thrusters are placed in the middle of each side of the boat, making them more agile and efficient, researchers report.

The next steps in the process include multi-boat coordination, urban navigation and developing adaptive controls to allow for changing mass and drag of the boats when transporting goods and people.

“Twenty percent of the Netherlands is water, and robots can be an efficient mode of transportation and logistics,” says Javier Alonso-Mora of the Cognitive Robotics Department at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the research. “Having swarms of robots in the canals of Amsterdam is a great idea.”