Video of the week: Roboat navigates Amsterdam's canals

2 min read

This week’s video comes from Amsterdam where an autonomous vessel dubbed Roboat has been deployed along the city’s canals.

Roboat marks the final project from a team made up of scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Laboratory, together with Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute).

Last year, the team released their half-scale model that was 2m long and demonstrated promising navigational ability. This year, two full-scale Roboats were launched that are capable of carrying up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and – as the video shows - provide on-demand infrastructure. The fully electric Roboat is capable of 10 hours of operation and can be recharged wirelessly.

“We now have higher precision and robustness in the perception, navigation, and control systems, including new functions, such as close-proximity approach mode for latching capabilities, and improved dynamic positioning, so the boat can navigate real-world waters,” said Daniela Rus, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of CSAIL. “Roboat’s control system is adaptive to the number of people in the boat.”


To navigate Amsterdam’s canals, Roboat has been equipped with GPS that helps it decide a safe route between two points. It continuously scans the environment to avoid collisions with objects, such as bridges, pillars, and other boats with a combination of lidar and a number of cameras to enable a 360-degree view.

When Roboat’s sensors detect an anomaly, the algorithm flags the item as “unknown.” When the team later looks at the collected data, the object is manually selected and can be tagged, for example as “canoe.”

The self-driving Roboat, with refined perception, navigation and control systems, prepares to set sail in Amsterdam (Photo courtesy of MIT CSAIL)

Small cameras on the boat guide it to the docking station, or other boats, when they detect specific QR codes. “The system allows Roboat to connect to other boats, and to the docking station, to form temporary bridges to alleviate traffic, as well as floating stages and squares, which wasn’t possible with the last iteration,” said Carlo Ratti, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) and director of the Senseable City Lab.

Additionally, Roboat has a universal hull design where the base is the same, but the top decks can be switched out depending on the use case.

“As Roboat can perform its tasks 24/7, and without a skipper on board, it adds great value for a city. However, for safety reasons it is questionable if reaching level A autonomy is desirable,” said Fabio Duarte, a principal research scientist in DUSP and lead scientist on the project. “Just like a bridge keeper, an onshore operator will monitor Roboat remotely from a control centre. One operator can monitor over 50 Roboat units, ensuring smooth operations.”

The next step for Roboat is to pilot the technology in the public domain. "The historic centre of Amsterdam is the perfect place to start, with its capillary network of canals suffering from contemporary challenges, such as mobility and logistics,” said Stephan van Dijk, director of innovation at AMS Institute.