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Amsterdam gets ready to test self-driving boats to transport goods and people

Self-driving boats have a future in city canals. A five-year program to test the functions these autonomous boats in Amsterdam’s canals kicked off with an announcement on Monday, according to The Verge.

The Amsterdam Institute for Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) has partnered with MIT, Delft University of Technology, and Wageningen University and Research. The project, called Roboat, has $27 million in funding to see develop robot boats for a wide range of purposes. The group expects to have the initial prototypes on the canals by 2017.

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Amsterdam has more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of canals that wind through the city and almost one-quarter of the city is covered by water. Self-driving cars do not elicit a lot of interest but self-driving boats could serve many functions.

“Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Carlo Ratti said in a press release. “But also think of dynamic and temporary floating infrastructure like on-demand bridges and stages, that can be assembled or disassembled in a matter of hours.”

Another area of interest of the Roboat program is how to implement self-driving aquatic vessels to help with public health. The scientists will use robots in Amsterdam’s sewer systems to map the spread of diseases. MIT’s involvement in the project in this aspect overlaps with the university’s Underworlds Initiative, studying the use of sensors in sewer systems.

Global warming, rising tides, and sea level concerns are a focus of potential Roboat implementation. According to AMS scientific director Arjan van Timmeren, 80 percent of global economic output and 60 percent of the world’s population is located around coastal and delta areas. Developed floating structures and transport vehicles could be in significant demand.

It is no coincidence the Roboat program is also partnering with the city of Boston, MIT’s home city. According to Timmeren, Boston is one of the most vulnerable U.S. cities in the face of rising tides and sea levels.  In 2014, Boston city planners considered instituting infrastructure changes for the eventuality of becoming a city of canals like Amsterdam and Venice, Italy.