Going full-on autonomous, i.e. Level 5 autonomy, is a major challenge for road-going vehicles. Meanwhile, it is much more achievable for a waterborne vehicle, as proven by Roboat.
Roboat is a research project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and AMS Institute. It is a designed-for-canal autonomous robot boat that is close to achieving Level 5 autonomy.
It being a canal-faring vessel, it needs to deal with much lesser complexity than a car has to on the roads and it is way, way slower.
With the onboard sensors, the Roboat is capable of avoiding obstacles autonomously, and dock itself to a dock or with another Roboat.
But the real highlight is its modularity. The Roboat is comprised of two parts: the lower section which is the hull that has the electric motor that drives the twin propellers, the computer, and whatnot, and the upper section that can be swapped to fit the intended purpose.
Speaking of intended purpose, Roboat can be adapted to serve as transportation such as a water taxi, as waste management vehicle (basically, water collector), and multiple Roboats can be fitted with a platform and combined together to form a floating infrastructure like docks and bridges.
Roboats can also be deployed to survey water infrastructure and monitor the water quality of the canal.
Currently, the Roboat project is being funded by the city of Amsterdam which resulted in two successfully autonomous full-scale prototypes.
MIT Senseable City Lab said that Roboat is ready for the next step towards pilots and commercialization.
With the developments of Roboat and the Yara Birkeland, it looks like Level 5 autonomy for boats isn’t too far away. As professor/director of MIT Senseable City Lab said it himself, Roboat’s autonomy is at what car’s autonomy would be in a few years’ time.