3D printing for unmanned boats

A working scale model of one of the rectangular 'boats'A working scale model of one of the rectangular 'boats' A working scale model of one of the rectangular 'boats'

Plans are afoot to 3D print a fleet of autonomous boats to operate in what are termed ‘water rich cities’, reports Dag Pike.

In the future, the researchers also envisage that these driverless boats can be adapted to perform city services overnight, instead of during busy daylight hours, further reducing congestion on both roads and canals.

“The plan is to shift some of the infrastructure services that usually take place during the day by road such as deliveries, garbage management, and waste management to night time operations using a fleet of autonomous boats,” said one of the researchers, Daniela Rus. Scientists have designed a fleet of 3D-printed, driverless boats that could also ferry goods and people, helping clear up road congestion in waterway-rich cities such as Amsterdam, Bangkok and Venice where canals run alongside and under bustling streets and bridges.

The autonomous boats offer high level of manoeuvrability and precise control. They can be built using a low cost 3D printer using hard wearing plastic material making mass manufacturing more feasible. The rectangular boats with hulls measuring 4 metres by 2 metres would be equipped with sensors, microcontrollers, location trackers, and other hardware. They could be programmed to self-assemble into floating bridges, concert stages, platforms for food markets, and other structures in a matter of hours. "Again, some of the activities that usually take place on land, and that cause disturbance in how the city moves, can be done on a temporary basis on the water," said the scientists. The boats could also be equipped with environmental sensors to monitor a city's water quality and gain an insight into urban and human health.

To make the boats, the researchers 3D-printed a rectangular hull with a commercial printer, producing 16 separate sections that were spliced together. Printing took around 60 hours. The completed hull was then sealed by adhering several layers of composite laminate. Integrated onto the hull are a power supply, Wi-Fi antenna, GPS, and a minicomputer and microcontroller. For precise positioning, the researchers incorporated an indoor ultrasound beacon system and GPS modules, which allow for centimetre level localisation, as well as an inertial measurement unit module that monitors the boat's yaw and angular velocity, among other parameters.

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