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Shape-shifting 'roboats' could arrange themselves into bridges

Researchers in Amsterdam are working on an autonomous boat fleet they hope to see assemble itself into various floating structures.

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Though it may look like they're playing aquatic Tetris, these autonomous aquatic robots are actually preparing to build a bridge in Amsterdam. 

MIT/Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions

There's a fleet of autonomous, shape-shifting robotic boats -- "roboats" -- in a 4-foot-deep swimming pool in Amsterdam. They aren't practicing their backstroke, but rather a new way of navigating the city's winding canal systems as part of an ongoing project between MIT and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, aka the AMS Institute. 

Researchers have equipped the roboats with sensors, GPS setups, cameras, thrusters, microcontrollers and the ability to latch onto each other -- allowing them to Tetris themselves into efficient configurations while avoiding collision. 

MIT/Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions

"We've enabled the roboats to now make and break connections with other roboats, with hopes of moving activities on the streets of Amsterdam to the water," MIT professor Daniela Rus said in a statement. 

The roboats could form pop-up bridges over the canal if people or things need to get to the other side, Rus added, or pop-up platforms to host food and flower markets through the city.

MIT/Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions

The researchers' goal next year is to create a bridge across a 60-meter canal in the city's center, which they say would be the world's first bridge comprised of an autonomous fleet.