MIT launches a fleet of Transformer boats
Clusters of bot boats may offer cities dynamic solutions to rising waters.
- Amsterdam is working with MIT to develop a way to move activity from the streets to the canals.
- A paper announces that the boats can now assemble themselves into various shapes.
- Flexible urban infrastructural systems such as this are likely to grow in importance.
Amsterdam has a problem with its streets — they're packed. They also have a potential solution to this congestion: Their 165 canals. The city's Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) has teamed up with MIT's Senseable City Lab in a 5-year project to develop intelligent, interlocking vessels that can shift some of that activity from land to sea. These Roboats keep evolving, and now MIT has announced that they're able to shapeshift as they navigate the city's also-crowded and winding canals and to self-assemble into floating structures.
Image source: MIT and AMS Institute
Dynamic urban infrastructures for the future
While the Roboat project is currently focused on Amsterdam's congestion, as coastal waters rise around the world, other cities will require this kind of enhanced flexibility in meeting the needs of their populations. Roads will submerge, waterways will grow, everything will shift around, and developing dynamic infrastructure systems will take on a new urgency as conditions evolve too quickly to be adequately addressed by long-term, fixed, traditional construction projects.
The first major mission for the Roboats will be the "roundAround," a moving "bridge" built of connected autonomous boats circling the canal and ferrying people between the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam's city center and the rapidly growing Marineterrein district. Currently, it takes about 10 minutes to walk a kilometer around the waterway to travel between the two locations, but the bridge will shorten that time to less than 2 minutes.
One aspect of the roundAround challenge is getting the autonomous Roboat units to play nice with obstacles and each other as they self-navigate. Another aspect is getting travelers safely onto and off the vessels' ramps. The designers expect to get plenty of feedback from passengers that will inform refinement of the system going forward.
The NEMO Science Museum, with an illustration of the roundAround system.
Image source: MIT/AMS
How Roboats work
The Roboat project involves sets of interconnected Roboat structures, each of which is a "connected-vessel platform," or a CVP. A CVP is comprised of two types of Roboats: A coordinator — the CVP's brain — and a number of workers. Multiple CVPs can be assembled to make larger structures.
Both types of Roboats are outfitted with four propellers, a wireless-capable microcontroller, automated latching mechanisms, and a sensing system with which it can communicate with other vessels.
The coordinators use GPS for navigation, as well as an IMU (inertial measurement unit) with which they can plan the CVPs' trajectory, orientation, and speed. In just a little over 100 milliseconds, a coordinator identifies collision-free regions to work out the shortest safe route. It also estimates its own final position and wirelessly commands its workers into the desired configuration around itself.
The new paper documents the capabilities of low-cost, 3-D-printed, 1/4 scale boats operating in an MIT pool. The boats demonstrated their capabilities by starting in one shape — side-to-side straight lines and squares — and flawlessly separating and reforming into rectangles, "L" shapes, and end-to-end lines. It's a promising start: "A set of boats can come together to form linear shapes as pop-up bridges, if we need to send materials or people from one side of a canal to the other. Or, we can create pop-up wider platforms for flower or food markets," says co-author Daniela Rus.
An illustration of the Roboat concept in action.
Image source: AMS
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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