MIT’s Autonomous ‘Roboats’ Learn to Shapeshift


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Self-driving cars may be the future for most cities, but Amsterdam is about one-quarter water thanks to its extensive canal network. So, maybe autonomous boats are worth exploring? MIT has been working with the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) to create just that. When we last checked in on the so-called “Roboat” vessels, they had just learned to reliably link up while floating on water. Now, MIT reports Roboats can shapeshift into different conformations in just a few minutes. 

Each individual Roboat is a fully fledged vessel, but the idea is not to have you hop on a single boat and use it as a taxi. From the start, MIT and AMS Institute have worked toward a multi-use role for the robotic vessels. Rather than designing different boats for different tasks, the Roboats can link up to become whatever people need. They could form bridges, stages, cargo transports, and floating busses. 

Progress has been swift for the Roboat project. In 2016, MIT tested a prototype boat that could move along pre-programmed routes. In 2018, it developed a method to 3D print the boats and tested advanced location tracking algorithms. Earlier this year, MIT and AMS Institute demoed the latching system that lets the robots link together on the water. 

The latest advance adds a layer of complexity to the Roboat docking system, marking a major step toward the goals of the project. MIT says it has developed new algorithms that allow the boats to smoothly reshape themselves in a few minutes. So, controllers can ask for a confirmation of Roboats like lines, squares, and L-shapes. The boats talk amongst themselves and determine the best way to morph into the desired shape. 

Testing the automated latching.

The shapes demonstrated in a pool at MIT are admittedly simple, consisting of just a handful of boats. However, the programming that went into it is still incredibly complex. Engineers had to make sure each boat was aware of its location relative to others, as well as how the group could move while shapeshifting to avoid collisions. To make that happen, the team created a division of labor. Both classes of Roboat have four propellers, wireless communication gear, and multiple docking hardpoints. The coordinators also have GPS and inertial measurement units (IMUs) that allow them to form the “core” of a structure. One or more worker Roboats connect to the coordinator and use actuators to help steer it. 

The current Roboats are one-quarter scale versions of the planned units. They’re about one meter long and half a meter wide. The team believes the trajectory-planning algorithms developed for the smaller boats will scale up to the full-sized ones when they exist in a few years.

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Starship Technologies Wants to Deploy Thousands of Delivery Robots at US Colleges


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College campuses are being flooded with new students right now, but there could be some other new arrivals if Starship Technologies has its way. The robotics company has closed a new round of funding that will allow it to deploy a small army of autonomous sidewalk delivery robots to as many as 100 college campuses around the US. 

The six-wheeled Starship robots are small, about knee-high, and fully electric. Since launching in 2018, Starship Technologies has tested its robots in more than 100 cities in 20 different countries. They’ve rolled 350,000 miles, crossed 4 million streets, and made over 100,000 deliveries. The robot uses a bank of cameras inside its Cylon-like visor to scan the world and identify objects. 

Starship Technologies says it has secured $40 million through series-A funding to get the new rollout going. The deployment has already started at George Mason University and the University of Northern Arizona, and it will expand to the University of Pittsburgh and the Purdue University in Indiana in September. Starship plans to have between 25 and 50 robots active on each campus within two years. Therefore, it could have a fleet of more than 5,000 delivery bots visiting dorm rooms by 2021. 

A Starship delivery robot.

Starship Technologies is interested in college campuses for several reasons. First, there are a lot of people living in a small space who are likely to order items online. The robots have a top speed of 4 miles per hour, so they won’t cover a lot of ground, but they can haul 20 pounds of cargo. A single robot could make several deliveries around campus in a short time. Colleges also have plenty of walking paths with well-defined boundaries and pedestrian traffic. That’s an ideal environment to improve the autonomous driving technology.

Customers can use Starship Technologies to get groceries, meals, packages, and more. It just costs $1.99 per order, much less than similar outfits that use people to deliver orders. Starship Technologies thinks this approach will appeal to students who don’t want to inconvenience a real person to bring them some random item. Although, the robots won’t be able to come to the door like a human. They can roll up curbs, but steps are a no-go. Starship CEO Lex Bayer thinks buildings may eventually build ramps and doors specifically for delivery robots, but we’re a long way from that.

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