MIT has an exciting new idea on how to curb congested roads by using autonomous boats in waterway cities such as Venice, Bangkok, and Amsterdam. Researchers from MIT’s CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence) Lab have designed a fleet of 3D-printed self-driving boats with high maneuverability and precision control. They hope that these boats will eventually ferry people as waterborne taxis and help deliver goods while easing street traffic.
The boats were designed in a rectangular fashion — -measuring out at 4 X 2-meters and were 3D-printed using a commercial printer to churn-out 16 separate pieces that were then spliced together. The complete print took roughly 60 hours, and the completed hull was reinforced with fiberglass, adding another layer of rigidity and protection against water.
The team outfitted the boats with a GPS unit, outdoor real-time kinematic GPS units, and an indoor ultrasound beacon for precision navigation. An IMU sensor monitors the boat’s yaw and angular velocity as well as other metrics while a mini-computer and microcontroller process collected data. It also features a Wi-Fi antenna for communication and power a supply to feed the hungry hardware.
Four thrusters positioned underneath each corner of the boat provide precision movement. That rectangular shape allows each vessel to connect to one another to assemble structures, including bridges and train-like barges to autonomously move goods and waste to various destinations overnight while people are sleeping.
The team developed an AI algorithm based on an efficient version of nonlinear model predictive control (NMPC) for autonomous control along with input from standard parameters, such as water drag, centrifugal/Coriolis effects and added mass when the boat accelerates and decelerates. The coupled the AI with a predictive-control algorithm to help determine upcoming actions and as a boost to improve the original AI determine what steps need to be taken when encountering obstacles.
While the boats are an impressive feat of engineering, the researcher’s state there is still a lot of work to be done before these types of boats hit the surf, especially up-scaling them for human use. They also need to work out the discrepancies between humans and other cargo, and while they’ve carried out small tests with good results, they will need to make sure the larger versions follow suit.