MIT and an Amsterdam institute have developed a new ‘Roboat’ system that lets autonomous robotic boats target and clasp onto each other.
Both MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) envision the roboats being used for garbage collection and self-assembly of floating structures in Amsterdam’s many canals.
About a quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area is water, with 165 canals winding alongside busy city streets.
Several years ago, MIT and the AMS Institute teamed up on the “Roboat” project which sought to buld robotic boats with rectangular hulls equipped with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, and cameras.
The aim of the project was to provide intelligent mobility on water to relieve congestion in the city’s busy streets.
In 2016, MIT researchers tested a roboat prototype that cruised around Amsterdam’s canals, moving forward, backward, and laterally along a pre-programmed path.
Last year, the researchers designed low-cost, 3D printed, one-quarter scale versions of the boats, which were more efficient and agile, and came equipped with advanced trajectory-tracking algorithms.
Each roboat is equipped with latching mechanisms, including ball and socket components, on its front, back, and sides.
The ball component resembles a badminton shuttlecock – a cone-shaped, rubber body with a metal ball at the end. The socket component is a wide funnel that guides the ball component into a receptor.
Inside the funnel, a laser beam acts like a security system that detects when the ball crosses into the receptor.
It then activates a mechanism with three arms that closes around and captures the ball, while also sending a feedback signal to both roboats that the connection is complete.
Each roboat has a LIDAR system and camera, so they can autonomously move from point to point around the canals.
Similarly, each docking station – an unmoving roboat – has a sheet of paper imprinted with an augmented reality tag called AprilTag, which resembles a simplified QR code.
Commonly used for robotic applications, AprilTags enable robots to detect and compute their precise 3D position and orientation relative to the tag.
Image and content: Mateos et al/MIT News