MIT Uses 3D Printing Technology To Develop Self-Driving Boats

Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) are using 3D printing technology to develop self-driving boats.

The boats have a rectangular structure — a design feature which allows them to move sideways, attach to other objects, and potentially reassemble into floating bridges or platforms. Each one measures 4 x 2 meters in size, is fitted with a power supply, mobile and radio frequency beacons, and a WiFi antenna. The boats could also be equipped with environmental sensors to monitor a city’s waters. Another unique design element was thruster placement. Four thrusters are positioned in the center of each side, instead of at the four corners, generating forward and backward forces. This makes the boat more agile and efficient.

For precise positioning, the team incorporated an indoor ultrasound beacon system and outdoor real-time kinematic GPS modules, which allow for centimeter-level localization, as well as an inertial measurement unit (IMU) module. A simplified nonlinear mathematical model that account for a few known parameters, such as drag of the boat, centrifugal and Coriolis forces, and added mass due to accelerating or decelerating in water, was built into an algorithm used to control the boat’s path.

“Imagine shifting some of infrastructure services that usually take place during the day on the road — deliveries, garbage management, waste management — to the middle of the night, on the water, using a fleet of autonomous boats,” said Daniela Rus, CSAIL’s director. “…, some of the activities that are usually taking place on land, and that cause disturbance in how the city moves, can be done on a temporary basis on the water.”

The work was conducted as part of the “Roboat” project, a collaboration between the MIT Senseable City Lab and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS).