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MIT’s fleet of autonomous boats can now shapeshift

New capabilities allow “roboats” to change configurations to form pop-up bridges, stages, and other structures.

Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

MIT’s fleet of robotic boats has been updated with new capabilities to “shapeshift,” by autonomously disconnecting and reassembling into a variety of configurations, to form floating structures in Amsterdam’s many canals.

The autonomous boats — rectangular hulls equipped with sensors, thrusters, microcontrollers, GPS modules, cameras, and other hardware — are being developed as part of the ongoing “Roboat” project between MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute). The project is led by MIT professors Carlo Ratti, Daniela Rus, Dennis Frenchman, and Andrew Whittle. In the future, Amsterdam wants the roboats to cruise its 165 winding canals, transporting goods and people, collecting trash, or self-assembling into “pop-up” platforms — such as bridges and stages — to help relieve congestion on the city’s busy streets.

In 2016, MIT researchers tested a roboat prototype that could move forward, backward, and laterally along a preprogrammed path in the canals. Last year, researchers designed low-cost, 3-D-printed, one-quarter scale versions of the boats, which were more efficient and agile, and came equipped with advanced trajectory-tracking algorithms. In June, they created an autonomous latching mechanism that let the boats target and clasp onto each other, and keep trying if they fail.

In a new paper presented at the last week’s IEEE International Symposium on Multi-Robot and Multi-Agent Systems, the researchers describe an algorithm that enables the roboats to smoothly reshape themselves as efficiently as possible. The algorithm handles all the planning and tracking that enables groups of roboat units to unlatch from one another in one set configuration, travel a collision-free path, and reattach to their appropriate spot on the new set configuration.

In demonstrations in an MIT pool and in computer simulations, groups of linked roboat units rearranged themselves from straight lines or squares into other configurations, such as rectangles and “L” shapes. The experimental transformations only took a few minutes. More complex shapeshifts may take longer, depending on the number of moving units — which could be dozens — and differences between the two shapes.