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MIT CSAIL Researchers Set Ridesharing Afloat


Some of the most tragic ferry accidents in recent years have been the result of pilot error.

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) have found a solution—remove the pilot. Their new autonomous vessel, Roboat II, relies on algorithms, similar to those in self-driving cars, to navigate waterways. Thanks to Lidar and GPS sensors and an inertial measurement unit, Roboat II has the “intelligence” to avoid obstacles in its path.The project is a collaboration among CSAIL, the MIT Senseable City Lab, and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS). About seven feet long, Roboat II is an upgrade from the inaugural Roboat, developed five years ago, which was just three feet long. The next iteration will be designed to transport a half dozen passengers, which the CSAIL team envisions could function along the lines of a water-based Uber. The Roboat’s software would be designed to respond to requests for pick-up. Its digital system coordinator would then assign the task to a vessel nearby. The Roboat team tested early iterations in MIT pools, then moved on to the Charles River. Most recently, the Roboat has been tested in the canals of Amsterdam. Initial results have been excellent, with Roboat II successfully navigating the city’s waterways, only deviating seven inches or so from its intended path. The team anticipates developing larger Roboats that will be put to the test in more vigorous waters. Ferries, perhaps, won’t be far behind.Versatile, scalable, adaptable

“We’re developing fleets of Roboats that can deliver people and goods and connect with other Roboats to form a range of autonomous platforms,” explains Daniela Rus, CSAIL director. CSAIL postdoc Wei Wang, lead author on a new paper about Roboat II, noted that his team is optimizing the technology for maximum versatility. “We also hope it will eventually be implemented in other boats in order to make them autonomous,” Wang says. Wang and his team will present a paper on Roboat II at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. 

Read more about Roboat II in MIT News.