Amsterdam Plans Fleet of Autonomous Boats

Driverless "roboats" will also clean up canals as they transport people and cargo.

Rapid advances in driverless cars have been making all the headlines in recent months. So why not take the next logical step and start planning for autonomous boats?

Why not, indeed. That's the plan in Amsterdam, where engineers hope to deploy a fleet of autonomous canal boats for ferrying people and cargo around the city. The Netherlands' capital is an ideal place to monkey around with the concept. More than 100 total kilometers of water canals run through the city, which is essentially 100-plus separate islands connected by 1,500 or so bridges.

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The Roboat Project -- see what they did there? -- is a research collaboration between MIT and other European universities, along with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS). The idea is to develop a logistics platform for various types of watercraft that would serve different functions in and around the city. In fact, according to the press materials, the agencies intend to "use the city as a living laboratory and test bed" for a number of progressive urban development projects.

The autonomous boat initiative is the flagship project for the group, and will include the waterborne equivalent of self-driving cars and buses that use the canals as roadways. The group also plans to develop networked water vehicles that work together to produce temporary floating infrastructure, such as on-demand bridges or waterfront performance stages.

In addition to transportation and infrastructure, the roboats will also carry onboard sensors and monitoring equipment to continually assess water quality. The boats could potentially provide an early-warning system for problems related to public health, pollution and the environment.

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There's even talk of developing dedicated cleaner boats that would skim the canals to remove debris and floating waste on the surface of the canals. If you've ever lived near an urban waterway, you already know how useful something like that could be. Assuming everything works out, the city may deploy more specialized water 'bots that reach down and pluck out trash from the bottom of the canals -- including the more than 12,000 (!) bicycles that end up down there each year.

The first prototypes of autonomous boats are expected to be tested in the city by 2017, with the initial phase planned for a five-year run. Make your Amsterdam reservations now.

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