Autonomous boat “bridge” proposed in Amsterdam

By Michael Brenneis

A group of autonomous vessel developers is proposing a new way to move people through the unique urban-aquatic environment of Amsterdam. The Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions has teamed with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to push the limits of autonomous technology in Amsterdam, including its 100 km of canals and other waterways. A small fleet of autonomous, electric boats (Roboats) is being designed to travel between the Marineterrein area and the city center, including the busy NEMO science museum. The potential use of autonomous technology here serves the dual purposes of increasing the accessibility of the area, by reducing the walk time by ten minutes, and showcasing this leading-edge technology.

The boats differ from a traditional ferry by running continuously in a circular route (termed a RoundAround, figure 1), by being able to sense and accommodate cross traffic, and by being able to land, launch, and travel without a pilot. According to the RoundAround promotional material “Bridging this 60m wide waterway poses challenges for urban engineers, as it’s an important fixed mast route for larger boats. Consequently, any bridge constructed would require a significant height,” not to mention a “complex, lengthy and costly [development process].”

Figure 1. Proposed autonomous boat RoundAround. Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions.

The developers also extol the boats’ modular, flexible design, which makes many other uses possible. The boats can be fitted with dumpsters to facilitate canal-wide garbage collection, or with compartments to shield users from inclement weather. They can be instructed to dock with each other to form floating event stages, or on-demand pedestrian bridges. They could be used to retrieve private boats from remote locations or transfer tourist boats to and from their moorings; a six-kilometer journey usually taking 45 minutes. The boats can also function as dispersed environmental monitors, capable of collecting data at finer resolution than stationary monitors.

Autonomous watercraft are being developed in many sectors, from research vessels to passenger ferries, where more permanent infrastructure would be impractical, and ocean-going container ships whose autonomy may increase safety and widen very narrow profit margins. If all goes as planned for the roboats’ developers, Amsterdam may take its place at the forefront of this technology by hosting a very interesting autonomous bridge.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.