Robot Boats Could Soon Take You for a Ride

No sailing skills required

Key Takeaways

  • There’s growing interest in the possibilities of robot boats.
  • MIT researchers are about to deploy a fully autonomous boat in the canals of Amsterdam.
  • Robot boats could be more fuel-efficient and safer than traditional boats.
MIT Roboat in the canals of Amsterdam

Pietro Leoni (MIT)

You might soon be sailing along in a boat without a captain. 

A new fully autonomous boat is ready to be deployed along the canals of Amsterdam. It's one of many nascent robot boat projects. Researchers who designed the Dutch "roboat" hope the craft could usher in a new age of autonomous boating. 

"Roboats could do everything from providing urban services at all times to monitoring oil spills and other environmental monitoring activities," Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Fábio Duarte, who was a member of the team behind the robot boat, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Row, Row, Row

Roboat has sailed far since the team first started prototyping small vessels in the MIT pool in late 2015. In 2020, the team released their half-scale, medium model that was about six feet long and demonstrated promising navigational prowess. 

This year, two full-scale Roboats were launched, proving that the boats can carry up to five people, collect waste, deliver goods, and provide on-demand infrastructure. The boat is fully electric with a battery that’s the size of a small chest, enabling up to 10 hours of operation and wireless charging capabilities.

MIT's Roboat sailing the canals of Amsterdam

Pietro Leoni (MIT)

One advantage the Roboat offers is cost, Duarte said. In Amsterdam, tourist boats are docked outside the city. Each day, the boats take about 40 minutes to come to the city center and another 40 minutes late afternoon to return empty (except for the skipper and small crew) to the docking area. Autonomous boat owners won't have to pay for a crew or empty time. 

The Roboat could also be more efficient. "Knowing where all other boats are headed to, the autonomous boat can optimize their routes, avoiding congested areas, saving time," Duarte said. 

Making Waves

There's a growing interest in autonomous boats, mirroring the burgeoning field of autonomous land vehicles. Sea Machines Robotics, for example, is working on technology that will provide autonomous ships to commercial operators and recreational users.

"The immediate impact is in reducing risk, improving fuel efficiency, and on-time arrival," Moran David, the company's chief commercial officer, told Lifewire. "Unlike humans, AI never gets fatigued, distracted, or overwhelmed by processing a large amount of data simultaneously."

Computers hooked up to sensors will allow boats to have their own situational awareness, too, David added. 

"From yachts to sport fishing, having a technology onboard that removes the manual and routine efforts allows users to focus on the non-routine, whether enjoying time with family and friends, fishing, or simply taking in the views," he said. 

Autonomous technologies will also make cargo ships more efficient, he predicted, saying, "this results in cost savings that will improve the supply chain's performance and ultimately translate to the costs of our goods as consumers."

Navies are particularly interested in the possibilities of robot boats as well. Small uncrewed boats can replace, or at least reduce, the need for larger vessels and human crew for dangerous and routine tasks such as minesweeping, Karl Birgir Björnsson, CEO of autonomous boat company Hefring Marine told Lifewire. 

Roboats could do everything from providing urban services at all times to monitoring oil spills...

Autonomous boats can be used for defense and patrol, "which would be particularly effective if the vessels can work together as a swarm, or even to assist with more offensive operations to support human-crewed vessels," Björnsson said. 

Companies are developing everything from collision avoidance systems to better sensors, cameras, and control and navigation software. Hefring Marine, for example, has developed an intelligent guidance and monitoring system for crewed boats intended to improve the safety of crew and passengers by determining how best to handle sea conditions and adjust operations, such as speed. 

"Operating a boat without being on board and not seeing and feeling the environment around you or the motions of the boat can make it tricky to make the right decisions concerning speed and heading, but our system can help [make those decisions]," Björnsson said.

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