Cities are dynamic entities; over centuries, urban populations have interacted with their built environment, enabling cities to function predominantly as places of exchange and interaction . As urban societies developed, expanding trade made waterways a vital component of many urban areas to enable the efficient movement of merchandise. Accordingly, many coastal cities possess capillary-like canal networks weaving through their centres.
However, the 20th century saw a developing public preference for motorised transportation, and with that, the vital significance of urban canal infrastructure has largely been lost. Instead, modern urban planners typically view canal networks as a constraint on urban development . Consequently, urban waterways have largely been repurposed, with those that remain principally serving tourist and recreation markets . Almost half of Amsterdam’s canals were lost to landfills during the 20th century, whilst Bruges’ Coupure canal was replaced with a broad avenue boasting parking facilities [3,1]. A by-product of this pivot towards road transport has been surging traffic congestion and subsequent increases in harmful emissions as vehicles powered by internal combustion engines clog narrow city streets.
For example, throughout 2018, before the Coronavirus pandemic temporarily lessened urban congestion, drivers lost 69 hours, on average, stuck in traffic in Amsterdam . Saint Petersburg which, like Amsterdam, features historical canal infrastructure, represents an even more choked network, with a 61% congestion rate in 2019, corresponding on average to an additional 21 minutes on a 30-minute trip . Although congestion figures have fallen marginally since then, Saint Petersburg remains the seventh-most congested city in the world in 2021 according to TomTom .
Clearly, there is abundant potential for urban planners to reconsider how mobility can be transformed using cities’ existing infrastructure. Promisingly, research in this area has been stimulated by an increasing need for water-based navigation in areas such as oceanic monitoring, marine resource exploitation, and hydrological surveying . The transferability of technologies used in these fields has encouraged strong commercial demand for the development of innovative autonomous vessels . The hope is that autonomous vessels will rejuvenate urban waterways, and in so doing alleviate pressure on currently overwhelmed infrastructure .
Large-scale research by MIT in collaboration with the Amsterdam AMS Institute has shown the potential for autonomous technology to provide dynamic solutions to changing metropolitan life . The creation of autonomous robotic boats, deployed initially on a trial basis in Amsterdam in late October 2021, which aim to reclaim Amsterdam’s waterways for mobility, represents an exciting and novel breakthrough in autonomous transportation [7,8].Notably, the group of cities that, like Amsterdam, boast historic waterways, including Stockholm, Saint Petersburg, Hangzhou, and Utrecht, all featured among the 500 cities with the largest carbon footprint in 2018 . Certainly, Amsterdam’s Roboat programme offers globally applicable, green urban mobility insights and solutions.
Wirelessly charged, and with a 60-mile range, the emission-free Roboat can transport up to five passengers, with potential to operate as an on-demand taxi service, or as a fixed route ferry . Capitalising on well-documented driverless car technologies, the Roboat utilises a similar control system, combining technologies such as LIDAR scanning, digital map creation, obstacle and object detection, and sensors that afford a 360-degree view of the vessel’s surroundings . Using the information these technologies provide, complex algorithms then remotely order battery-powered propellers to follow specific paths, which are constantly updated as the vessel’s immediate environment is scanned .
Extensive research is consistently improving the ability of the Roboat to function autonomously in complex urban scenarios. Utilising enhanced object detection and identification, planning algorithms have become increasingly efficient, whilst more recently, the addition of adjustments for environmental disturbances such as currents or waves have further improved Roboat’s performance on agitated waters . Researchers claim confidence over Roboat’s capabilities autonomously to navigate Amsterdam’s busy waterways, providing the preliminary impetus for a shift in transport behaviours in water-related cities .
The research team are keen to highlight that the Roboat’s functions exceed just that of reducing traffic congestion within the city. The commercial opportunities extend beyond purely passenger transport, with the Roboat capable of transferring household waste out of the city . In a city where 70% of urban districts remain accessible by water, this function would dramatically reduce the need for heavy waste removal trucks in Amsterdam, further relieving pressure on road infrastructure .
Similarly, capitalising on an already developing autonomous delivery sector, the Roboat furthers the potential for automated final-stage deliveries, delivering goods via the cities’ waterways, and thereby restoring the canals’ historical function . The Roboat’s innovative boat latching mechanism also allows vessels to attach to one-another and designated docking stations . This mechanism unlocks the potential to provide on-demand infrastructure, such as river crossings for pedestrians, to further streamline future mobility strategies in the city .
The next step for Roboat is to progress from a novel concept to a commercially viable automated mobility solution. The research team has announced their intention to collaborate with pioneering companies to upscale its technology and push the Roboat further into the public domain . Whilst Roboat technology may not be ready for immediate widespread public use, its potential for improving mobility in Amsterdam is both recognised and highly valued. Udo Kock, Amsterdam’s former Deputy Mayor, sees the future commercial Roboat transforming the cities’ waterways into intensively used passages for goods and passenger transport, “just like three centuries ago” .
The significance of harnessing autonomous vehicles for transportation must not be understated. A successful pilot programme in Amsterdam’s busy urban waterways provides a promising and transferable green mobility solution to the overburdened infrastructure of all cities with waterways. Cities such as Saint Petersburg and Hangzhou will be eagerly observing the commercial success of the Roboat in the immediate future, with a view to implementing innovative congestion-reducing mobility solutions in their metropolitan areas.