By Yemoï Hoeben – Communications Intern at AMS Institute

Roboat is the world’s first major research program on autonomous floating vessels in metropolitan areas. It allows for creating dynamic infrastructures, transportation of goods and people, and environmental sensing on Amsterdam’s canals. After working on 1:4 and 1:2 scale prototypes in the first three years of research, finally the full-scale prototype is being developed. The prototype is being tested in the waters of the inner harbor of the Marineterrein in Amsterdam.

Roboat test-ride

Roboat about to get launched in the water

Roboat test-ride

Roboat test-ride in the inner harbor of The Marineterrein

Roboat test-ride

Roboat test-ride in the inner harbor of The Marineterrein

Introducing the design engineer of Roboat
Pietro Leoni is part of the Senseable City Lab (MIT) and works daily as a research fellow on the Roboat project. After graduating in Architecture and participating in several architectural-related projects, he started working for MIT in 2015. Pietro joined the Roboat team from the start of the project. During the pitching phase at MIT, he was responsible for the initial design proposal of the boat.

Like no other, Pietro is aware of the enormous amount of data and knowledge that is necessary to develop an autonomous boat. For him, it was important to always keep the multifunctionality of the boat in mind during the design process.

Pietro with Roboat

“There are a lot of logistic matters you have to keep in mind before starting the design process. We have to think about what urban challenges the boat is going to tackle. For example, garbage logistics or (passenger) transportation functionalities, and the circumstances of the surroundings where the boat is being deployed, the Amsterdam canals. All these purposes effect the design choices.”

Pietro Leoni- Roboat Design Engineer

AMS Institute

Supporting the purpose of the boat through its unique components
To get a design project started, it is important to keep in mind what the purpose of the project is. In the case of Roboat, it is creating an autonomous boat. This means that the boat will not be steered by a human and the design will not be built around the captain, where the design of a boat usually starts. Besides the purpose, the functionalities of the boat should also be taken into account. In order to make the boat autonomous, it is supported by different components, that also bring new design questions to the table.

“You always start with already existing knowledge, and you try to convert it to what the boat needs to fulfill its purpose.”

Pietro Leoni- Roboat Design Engineer

AMS Institute

During the conversation with Pietro, it becomes clear that the design of the boat is built around its functionalities and associated components. There are four main components which are different from ‘normal’ boats and are specifically developed for Roboat.

The first component of the boat are the sensors. In order for the boat to fully perceive its surroundings, Roboat relies on input from GPS, IMU, LiDAR, DVL and cameras. The combined sensor kit determines the direction and orientation of the boat which prevent the boat from bumping into obstacles such as other boats, swimmers, wild life or quay walls.

The second component is the electric drivetrain that powers the Roboat. Each boat has four electric thrusters that allow the Roboat to move in all directions, even laterally. Since the electric motor is integrated in the pod itself, the thruster does not require any internal space. This makes them very easy to swap and replace. The thrusters were initially not designed to be interacting with a computer-controlled boat, so the team needed to closely collaborate with the supplier to implement the autonomous control algorithms. These lessons learned can now also be applied to other cases.

Roboat is powered by 12kW LiFePo batteries and the cells were developed by our sponsor Murata. The battery can charge itself at a wireless electric charging point that can be fully integrated in a canal. Another unique result of design-thinking.

The third component is the latching system. With the latching system multiple Roboat units can connect, creating a new autonomous system with bigger dimensions. Applications you can think of is when Roboat latches to the garbage module to pick up the garbage, or to dock the boat to the quay.

With the latching system you can more easily moor the boat. This is also convenient for charging the battery at a dedicated Roboat docking station.


Roboat main thruster


Roboat thruster

Roboat battery

12kW LiFePo batteries Murata

Roboat sensor

The sensors to read the surroundings

The fourth component is the boat’s modularity. An important design idea behind Roboat is that the boat is built in a modular way. With the use of various top decks, the boat gets a broad range of functions, ranging from the transport of people, to moving goods and creating temporary stages or bridges.

The modularity of Roboat: the garbage module

“By replacing the top deck, you change the function of the boat. Each top deck fits on every base, because they are interchangeable.”

Pietro Leoni- Roboat Design Engineer

AMS Institute

What makes the Roboat design unique?
The design always supports the function and components of the boat. If you take out the human factor of the boat and replace it with a computer, it opens up doors for some interesting design choices. A very important design choice is its symmetric look. This supports two functionalities, namely, the latching system of the boat – to interlock multiple Roboat units - and also contributes to the stability of the boat, which contributes to smooth operation of the boat.

By creating a symmetric design, the boat is able to be self-sufficient in any situation. The computer can calculate its direction without the consideration of having a front or back. This makes the boat more flexible and makes it easy for Roboat to sail in smaller canals. In combination with the four thrusters, the boat can stay in a position even if the water current or the wind are trying to interfere with it.

The team decided to use a construction made out of aluminum. Aluminum can be compared to a big metal origami. It is bendable in certain ways, which made it an ideal material for the Roboat project because of its modular nature.

“The design is determined by the needs of the boat. We didn't start with an aesthetic idea in mind. We started with the idea of what the boat should do.”

Pietro Leoni- Roboat Design Engineer

AMS Institute

Roboats designed for collecting household waste via the canals
Who knows all about aesthetics is Paul Timmer, a Amsterdam-based designer and product engineer who contributed to the inlay for the development of the garbage module of Roboat. He works together with the engineers of the Senseable City Lab of MIT to optimize their designs into a ‘ready-to-experiment’ inlay, that is crafted in his workshop at the former NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam North.

In workshop of Paul

Creating the Roboat garbage module

In workshop of Paul

The Roboat garbage module

Waste collection is one of the most critical public services in every city to keep cities livable. Every year the city of Amsterdam, with almost 900,000 inhabitants, generates more than 300,000 tons of waste. In most neighborhoods in the city, there are underground containers and collection bins. However, the reality in the city center is different.

The centuries-old quays of the characteristic canals are not developed for underground containers. Today most residents that live in historic center still need to bring their waste in trash bags to the sidewalks, which are collected by garbage trucks twice a week. An issue the city is now facing, are the heavy garbage trucks who are damaging the quay walls.

Floating Roboat containers can be distributed throughout Amsterdam to collect household waste, partly solving the issues that the city is now facing with the heavy garbage trucks damaging the quay walls. The autonomous boats bring floating dumpsters to specific locations and return to collect them when they are full.

Paul was approached by AMS Institute to work on the Roboat project because of a previous collaboration on a Living Lab Project with the students of the MSc MADE. With his background in both engineering and construction design, Paul is a perfect fit to the project. Paul works from the idea the form must complement and enhance the technical aspect of a product. In his work for the Roboat project he started with analyzing the designs of the garbage module prototype made by the researchers of MIT. During this process he finds out that some technical ideas need alterations to be implemented in practice. This resulted in a solution wherein he adapts the shape to the production technique.

“I believe that form, function and production techniques must coincide to get the result aimed for. And I am happy to have contributed to the inlay that will be used for inner city garbage collection.”

Paul Timmer- Roboat Product Engineer

Future next steps to design the boat
Now the prototype of the full-scale is gradually developing all its autonomous function, it’s time for the next interesting, but challenging step: interaction with humans. How will people interact with an autonomous boat and how will it affect the current water traffic? Roboat is self-learning and learns from all the new interactions and encounters on the water. This way the boat keeps developing its algorithm and responses to these interactions. With all the research and design choices in mind, this is the proof of the pudding.

One thing is for sure, the Roboat has a unique design that challenges conventional thinking. Pietro and Paul are curious and excited about the future of Roboat and are convinced Roboat can bring a lot of benefit to cities like Amsterdam, and other water-rich cities world-wide.

Many thanks to Pietro Leoni, Paul Timmer and the Roboat team for their input and time.