Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Senseable City Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) have created a fleet of autonomous boats that offer high maneuverability and precise control. According to MIT, the boats can be rapidly 3-D printed using a low-cost printer, making mass manufacturing more feasible.

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). In 2016, as part of the project, the researchers tested a prototype that cruised around the city’s canals, moving forward, backward, and laterally along a preprogrammed path.

To make the boats, the researchers 3-D-printed a rectangular hull with a commercial printer, producing 16 separate sections that were spliced together. Printing took around 60 hours. The completed hull was then sealed by adhering several layers of fiberglass.

The boats could be used to taxi people around and to deliver goods, easing street traffic. In the future, the researchers also envision the driverless boats being adapted to perform city services overnight, instead of during busy daylight hours, further reducing congestion on both roads and canals.

“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,” says CSAIL Director Daniela Rus, co-author on a paper describing the technology that’s being presented at this week’s IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

Moreover, the boats — rectangular 4-by-2-meter hulls equipped with sensors, microcontrollers, GPS modules, and other hardware — could be programmed to self-assemble into floating bridges, concert stages, platforms for food markets, and other structures in a matter of hours. “Again, 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,” says Rus, who is the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

The boats could also be equipped with environmental sensors to monitor a city’s waters and gain insight into urban and human health.

For more information, check out MIT’s video on the project.