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Roboats are autonomous ferries, waste collectors and bridges all in one

Fully electric, autonomous boats are being tested in Amsterdam. The boats can carry people, gather waste and link together to form floating infrastructure.

Most city dwellers -- myself included -- tend to think about the infrastructure that shapes our lives only when something goes wrong: a pothole damages a tire, a road gets closed, the power goes out. 

The folks at the MIT Senseable City Lab think about infrastructure a whole lot more than that, and they're testing a new kind of modular infrastructure that can be adapted to serve a variety of needs in a short amount of time.

It's called Roboat, and two full-size prototypes are being tested in the waters of Amsterdam right now.

Roboat is a fully autonomous electric boat that can ferry passengers, gather waste or link together to form larger floating infrastructure like docks or bridges.

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Two full-sized Roboat prototypes at work in Amsterdam.

MIT & AMS Institute

Carlo Ratti, MIT professor and director of the Senseable City Lab, told us that "Roboat is going to be controlled with a touch interface. At the moment it's still a prototype, but you can imagine you go to your phone or [...] any touch interface, you just insert your destination and the boat will take you there."

The hull of the Roboat is a platform that includes much of the core technology: the battery, latching system, propulsion, control system and a water sampling system that can analyze water quality in real time.

The top part of the Roboat is interchangeable, with different tops designed for accomplishing different jobs. Developers say the top portion of Roboat can be switched out in under an hour.

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Roboat's passenger configuration can seat up to 5 people.

MIT & AMS Institute

Fábio Duarte, principal research scientist at MIT, told us that Roboat is still in the research and development phase and isn't ready for the market quite yet. As to whether Roboats are likely to enter the world as a government-subsidized public service like buses, or as a privatized for-profit service like taxis, Duarte told us that all depends on where Roboats are put to work in the future and what the circumstances are in those areas.