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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MIT’s autonomous boat robots can now shapeshift to form new structures – gpgmail


Work continues on developing MIT’s fully autonomous robot boats – ‘roboats’ if you’d rather – and now they have a new trick, allowing them to change configurations and reassemble with one another to form a range of new structures.

When last we checked in on the ‘roboat’ project, the robots had achieved a basic level of autonomy, allowing them to do basic navigation, and also to latch on to one another to form rudimentary assemblies. Now, they’re improved to the point where they can not only connect, but also both disconnect and re-assemble into new types of structures – all on their own.

The researchers working on the self-assembling roboats have devised an algorithm that manages all the planning involved in getting groups of the aquatic robots to unlatch from each other, then route a path that avoids any potential collisions, and then reconnect with other robots again in a new type of configuration. They’ve demonstrated this working both in simulation and in a pool at MIT, with the rectangular platform robots configuring themselves into straight lines, squares and even Ls.

So they’ve essentially mastered the basic shapes from Tetris, but this is a key step in the ultimate goal of making these the basis for truly utilitarian robots that can assemble and reassemble on-demand to create bridges, floating platforms, on-demand barges of any size and more, which would have obvious applications for reshaping urban environments with easy access to water.

The self-configuration and re-configuration happens because the roboats now come in two flavors: workers and coordinators. These units combine to form an overall platform, but the coordinators include GPS and a measuring tool for determining their relative pose and velocity. The workers have actuators to help the overall platform unit steer. The coordinators work together to figure out how they’re currently arranged, compare that to the target arrangement, and then issue orders about which ones stay in place, and which ones have to change position to achieve that new shape given their staring point.

While the robots used for these specific experiments were about 3 feet by 1.5 feet in size, the full-sized roboats are about four times the size – but researchers think the algorithm will work when applied to them, too. That will be crucial if the team hopes to achieve its goal of building a bridge capable of autonomous formation to span the nearly 200-foot canal that connects the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam to a nearby neighborhood, which they’re aiming to do sometime next year.


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