Narrow bridges

Bridges, cargo and navigation: the obstacles facing autonomous vessels

It looks like a small apartment – TV, sofa, shower area, fridge, washing machine, bed. In front of the door, there is a table and benches, surrounded by flowerpots. The view from the window is unusual, however, as the landscape passes in front of the apartment. And behind the “terrace” there is a huge mountain of junk – a good thousand tons. Eberhard Butenhof lives with his wife and a young trainee captain on a barge. His work could soon be taken over by a machine.

The workplace is not the most attractive: it has been for years river associations complain about the lack of trainees. Almost 7,000 ships travel daily on the Rhine alone, which corresponds to a carrying capacity of ten million tonnes, which would otherwise have to be transported by trucks and trains. The narrowest of Germany’s 7,476 kilometers of inland waterways have so far been largely unused. It is simply too difficult and expensive to find staff who can only move small amounts of goods.

Now that should change – with robot ships. The Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine already has 30 European research projectswhich deal with autonomous vessels for inland navigation. Autonomous boats could move more transport to water and thus relieve a little congestion in the congested streets of metropolises.

One of the projects is “A swarm”. It stands for “Autonomous Electric Shipping on Waterways in Metropolitan Regions”. The Potsdam Shipbuilding Research Institute and the Technical University of Berlin are also involved. The prototype of this autonomous river boat is mainly made of aluminum – it is six meters long and two and a half meters wide. It is currently carrying out tests on the Westhafen Canal and the Berlin Spandauer Schifffahrtskanal, among others, but so far with remote control. Little by little, the boat should now gain in autonomy. The Federal Ministry of the Economy is funding the project to the tune of 4.2 million euros.

Navigation is one of the challenges. While conventional drones have to contend with the wind in the air, the boat also has to face the current. He can’t just stop in front of an obstacle – he just keeps moving forward. The system must also take into account the distribution of the load at all times. Additionally, bridges interfere with the GPS signal, so boats need additional sensors like lidar or radar. Like the development of self-driving cars, researchers are now focusing on collecting as much data as possible on obstacles encountered during road tests: larger waste, branches, animals, swimmers or other boats.

Researchers can imagine that such ships support parcel services, for example. Especially during the pandemic, parcel service providers can hardly keep track of deliveries – notably, they also contribute to downtown traffic. Logistics companies are experimenting with delivery drones, but they can only carry very small packages. The ships could also travel in series in the smaller canals and thus carry up to two tonnes of freight as a fleet. If the proper infrastructure is built, they could hand over their cargo to delivery vehicles at various points in the city.

Autonomous boats are also currently circulating in Amsterdam as a test – the robots. These are ferries that are under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), among others. The ferry can carry six people and thus act as a taxi or tourist bus, or – after conversion – also take various loads. One application envisaged by the researchers would be the elimination of bulky waste from cities. Since the ferry is relatively quiet, it could also do so at night when the waterways are empty anyway.

The black and gray robots have a futuristic look, and their ferry function is somewhat reminiscent of the cars on amusement park rides. Passengers can be seated in two opposite seats. Hidden under them in the boat is a battery the size of a small trunk, which can be used for up to ten hours and can be charged wirelessly.

MIT Senseable City Lab

Passengers can give the boat a destination. The boat then uses GPS to decide on a safe route while scanning the area to avoid collisions with bridges, piers and other boats. It also uses lidar technology and a number of cameras that provide 360 ​​degree views. The control algorithms constantly give instructions for the propellers “thrusters” which keep the boat in motion. The system takes into account the number of people on board. The particularity of this boat is that it can be associated with other robots so as to form a spontaneous bridge over a river. To do this, he closes the living area with a roof, on which passers-by can safely walk.

There are other test ships: looks even more futuristic autoship – a project by the Norwegian shipping company Kongsberg Maritime and the Scottish University of Strathclyde, among others. As a test, it rolls around the large European port of Antwerp in the Flemish region and is intended to transport goods on pallets or roll containers. This Fähre Maul test vessel “Horst”, which connects Oestrich-Winkel and Ingelheim near Mainz, crosses a particularly difficult area with narrow passages, sandbanks and strong currents as part of the AKOON research project.

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

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So far, all systems have operated on test tracks and can, if necessary, be supported by remote control. Researchers do not anticipate real deployments for ten years at the earliest. Then the captains have to get used to apartments whose window always shows the same landscape.


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