From self-driving buses to cars, autonomous vehicles are on their way to becoming a frequent sight on modern roads. But there’s another area of driverless transportation that’s remained less explored: boats. Amsterdam is moving to change that with the world’s first major research initiative into floating vessels that navigate themselves, The Verge reports.

The program, dubbed Roboat, was announced by the Amsterdam Institute for Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) on Monday, September 19. For five years, researchers from MIT, Delft University of Technology, and Wageningen University and Research will be looking into how autonomous boats can be used to transport goods and human passengers along Amsterdam’s 65 miles of canals.

The researchers envision multi-purpose robo-boats that double as floating pieces of infrastructure. Lead researcher Carlo Ratti of MIT suggests vessels that can assemble themselves into temporary bridges or platforms in a few hours. The boats will be used as important data-gathering tools as well. AMS Institute’s Scientific Director Professor Arjan van Timmeren said in a release:

“Roboat offers enormous possibilities as we’ll also be exploring environmental sensing. We could for instance do further research on underwater robots that can detect diseases at an early stage or use Roboats to rid the canals from floating waste and find a more efficient way to handle the 12,000 bicycles that end up in the city’s canals each year.”

The team has been granted €25 million—or about $27 million—in funding for their five-year endeavor. For Amsterdam residents, the arrival of the driverless boat-bots to the neighborhood is just around the corner: Researchers hope to have their prototypes on the water by 2017.



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