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Amsterdam considering a new bridge made from autonomous boats

Row, row, row your “roboat” gently down the stream

Rendering of small orange robotic boats on waterway in Amsterdam. MIT’s Sensible City Lab

Amsterdam is a city of bridges, some of them widely experimental. But a new concept from MIT’s Sensible City Lab and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions trumps them all with roundAround, which imagines the bridge as a series of autonomous boats that shuttle people across waterways.

If this sounds like a ferry, stop right there. Carlo Ratti, head of the Sensible City Lab, explains that these intelligent electric “roboats” (robotic boats) will be able to navigate Amsterdam’s waterways on their own while they shuttle hundreds of passengers every hour.

“The roboat units of roundAround will autonomously respond to and learn from the dynamics of this Amsterdam waterway,” Ratti says. “As they operate, the system will become increasingly more intelligent and well-equipped to be implemented in other parts of the city and other cities worldwide.”

People stand on a dock in a rendering of the small orange electric boats. MIT’s Sensible City Lab

The boats will traverse the waterway between Marineterrein and Amsterdam’s city center in a circular motion, picking up and dropping off passengers at the two docks on either side of the river. The roboats will be equipped with cameras and Lidar sensors that ensure the self-sailing boats don’t bump into each other (the boats can also move in eight directions).

Why roboats instead of a fixed bridge? Sensible City Lab says that this section of the waterway poses challenges for urban engineers because it’s an important fixed mast route for larger boats. Any bridge wold need to be very tall, resulting in a more expensive bridge that takes a long time to construct.

For now, the concept boats are a solution for transporting humans over the waterway, but Ratti believes that the roboats will also someday be a solution for delivering packages, picking up trash, and providing tugboat assistance to other vessels.

An aerial rendering of boats in the water, traveling in a circle from one side of the dock to the other. MIT’s Sensible City Lab