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These bridge-building robots want you to walk all over them

Contributed by
Sep 2, 2019

When it’s time to go out and face those offshore zombies on their turf, a new creation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology might one day fit the bill. Researchers at MIT are using robots to develop a self-configuring bridge system, one that lets you deploy a small army of droids that’ll arrange themselves on the water’s surface so you can safely tread above the murky depths.

MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) are developing a fleet of AI-powered “roboats” — autonomous robotic mini-vessels that can “change configurations to form pop-up bridges, stages, and other structures” — to one day give the Netherlands city more room to move as its network of canals grows more congested. “In the future, Amsterdam wants the roboats to cruise its 165 winding canals, transporting goods and people, collecting trash, or self-assembling into ‘pop-up’ platforms — such as bridges and stages — to help relieve congestion on the city’s busy streets,” according to MIT News.

AI robots forming water structures at MIT

Credit: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Under previous tests dating as far back as 2015, the roboats already showed they could devise ways to arrange themselves on the fly, using “advanced trajectory-tracking algorithms” that keep the devices from bumping into each other by assigning each of them an AI that functions either in a “coordinator” or “worker” role. 

In those tests, the ‘bots successfully demonstrated that they could keep track of each other while agreeing “on how to break apart and reform.” But the real bridge-building step came in June, when the team “created an autonomous latching mechanism that let the boats target and clasp onto each other, and keep trying if they fail.”

It isn’t just bridges that these water-borne drones can assemble. In computer modeling, as well as real-world tests of small-scale versions of the ‘bots at an MIT pool, “groups of linked roboat units rearranged themselves from straight lines or squares into other configurations, such as rectangles and ‘L’ shapes,” the report states, noting that each transformation “only took a few minutes.” The roboats even can even link up to form miniature rafts — and then propel themselves across the water to an agreed-on destination.

Once researchers are confident that it’s time to graduate from their 3D-printed test droids to the life-sized real thing, they plan to head to Amsterdam to form “the world’s first bridge comprised of a fleet of autonomous boats,” MIT professor Carlos Ratti explained. If successful, the so-called “RoundAround” project will turn the ‘bots loose to self-construct a 60-meter “dynamic bridge” spanning a canal in the city center — one that’ll cut down on the current 10-minute walk-around by collecting and depositing passengers as the ever-spinnng structure aligns with the docks on either side.

Okay, so these roboats may never see actual duty as a way to take the fight to all those cinematic creepy-crawlies that threaten from the deep. But if researchers don’t run into any snares, who’s to say they can’t one day become a new tool in the movie-making process? — a nifty new way to get us up close and personal with all the terrors (undead or otherwise) that lurk below.

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