THE HAGUE • Amsterdam's iconic canals may soon see the world's first autonomous boats, doing everything from moving people and goods to providing "pop-up" bridges and cleaning up thousands of dumped bicycles, the project's scientists said.
The first prototypes of the so-called Roboat will be launched next year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) said.
MIT has donated €20 million (S$30 million) to the research. The five-year programme has a budget of €25 million.
"While the first prototypes of self-driving cars are taking to the road, Amsterdam ushers in a new chapter in the international push for autonomous vehicles," AMS said in a statement earlier this week.
"Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people," added MIT's Professor Carlo Ratti, who heads the Roboat research programme.
"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," he said.
Roboat offers enormous possibilities, said AMS scientific director Arjan van Timmeren, adding that the boats could also be used to help carry out "further research on underwater robots that can detect (waterborne) diseases at an early stage".
"Or we can use Roboats to rid the canals of floating waste and find a more efficient way to handle the 12,000 bicycles that end up in there every year," Dr Van Timmeren said.
With some 165 canals, totalling a length of 50km according to the Dutch capital's marketing office, Amsterdam is the "ideal place for developing Roboat", researchers said.
According to AMS' website, the institute will be "testing different kinds of sizes and shapes of Roboats to figure out what works best".
"It is a fantastic opportunity for Amsterdam," said the city's alderman and vice-mayor Kajsa Ollongren. "To have the world's most prominent scientists work on solutions with autonomous boats in this way is unprecedented, and most fitting for a city where water and technology have been linked for ages," she said, according to a press statement.
Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2010, the 400-year-old canal ring around Amsterdam has always been a transport and recreational mainstay in the city.
The city itself is sometimes called the Venice of the North.
Today, canal cruises form the largest tourist attraction in the city that sees some 17 million visitors flocking there every year. Some 2,500 houseboats are also moored along Amsterdam's canals and rivers.