Roboat – a research project by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) – will provide self-driving solutions on water for different use cases. After successfully implementing full autonomy on the 1:4 and 1:2 scale boats, Roboat now introduces the first full-scale prototype – ready to start piloting real-life use cases.

Introducing Lucy - the full-scale prototype of Roboat

The new 1:1 scale model

Roboat has a unique modular design. The vessel consists of a hull, that forms the technical basis of the boat, designed with different top-decks that can be applied for multiple use cases: transportation of people and garbage collection, as well as stages and bridges when latched together. The full-scale boat measures 2 by 4 meters. “These relatively small dimensions make the boat well suited for the urban environment,” says Carlo Ratti, Director of MIT Senseable City Lab and Principal Investigator in the project.

With four thrusters, the boat can move in all directions, making it agile and responsive to other traffic on the water, but also facilitating precise maneuvering for docking and latching.

“When individual Roboat units are latched, different combinations of floating platforms can be created. In their new configuration they form floating pixels and respond as new autonomous organisms”

Carlo Ratti

Professor at MIT Senseable City Lab & AMS PI

The full-scale Roboat is equipped with an improved perception sensor kit that combines LIDAR (Laser Image Detection and Ranging), GPS, DVL (Doppler Velocity Log) and camera-based object detection which enables the vessel to observe and scan the canals for path-finding and obstacle avoidance. When Roboat encounters an object in the water, the boat determines whether it is stationary or moving and measures the proximity and directionality of the object. The vessel then calculates the best maneuver to avoid the obstacle. After passing the obstacle, Roboat resumes its optimal route.

The top-deck that enables Roboat to transport people has a capacity for five people

Pilots and experiments to develop use cases

In the coming months, the full-scale boat will be tested in the waters of Marineterrein Amsterdam Living Lab – a testbed for innovations and AMS Institute’s home base. Together with engineers, computer scientists and designers from MIT, the Amsterdam based team is already working towards full autonomy of the full-scale boat. Tests include way-point finding, autonomously docking and undocking, and obstacle avoidance.

Roboat is self-learning and adapts its abilities based on experiences of how maneuvers are executed. Next to this, algorithms learn to recognize the behavior of different types of objects and other boats on the water. Moreover, over time as the system collects, stores and analyzes more information as it navigates the canals, it will be able to operate more efficiently. The 12 kW battery currently provides 9-hours of non-stop operating time which enables the possibilities for various use cases.

“For instance, by using Roboat to collect waste from Amsterdam’s city center, the number of traffic movements within the city center can be reduced, which alleviates pressure from the fragile quays of the Amsterdam canals”

Stephan van Dijk

Director of Innovation

The use case for waste collection will be piloted in 2021 when also a second boat will be deployed. “With two boats on the water also the interaction between boats can be further developed, as well as the possibility to create bigger autonomously moving platforms by latching the boats”, explains van Dijk.


With 165 canals winding alongside busy city streets, about a quarter of Amsterdam’s surface area is water. Four years ago, MIT and AMS Institute set the ambition to develop a fleet of autonomous vessels. Whereas autonomous shipping focuses on more straightforward trajectories, Roboat is designed to navigate the urban dynamics of the Amsterdam canals. An idea that was born to alleviate pressure from Amsterdam’s busy city center and re-imagine the Amsterdam canals.

Roboat is a research project of MIT and AMS Institute. Project partners: City of Amsterdam and Waternet. Project sponsors: Murata (12kW battery pack), Torqeedo (thruster pods), VETUS (bow thrusters).

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