The city of Amsterdam has more than a hundred kilometers of canal winding their way through the municipality. The Amsterdam Institute for Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) has announced a research initiative to explore possible functions of  the Roboat, floating robot vehicles.

“Imagine a fleet of autonomous boats for the transportation of goods and people,” said MIT’s Carlo Ratti, a principal investigator in the research program. The program has the delightfully straightforward name of Roboat, and is being carried out by researchers from MIT and two Dutch universities (the Delft University of Technology and Wageningen University and Research). They have €25 million in funding for their work ($27 million) and aim to have the first prototype robo-vehicles floating on Amsterdam’s canals by 2017.

The project will also be exploring the commercial applications of these systems. 80 percent of global economic output is found around coastal and delta areas, while that same portion of land is home to 60 percent of the world’s population. Rising sea levels caused by global warming are also likely to increase the need for this sort of floating technology.

For example, the Roboat program is also partnering with the city of Boston, which is one of the most vulnerable cities in the US when it comes to rising tides. In 2014, a consortium of Boston urban planners and architects suggested converting some of the city’s streets to canals in order to accommodate rising sea levels. Instead of having flood waters overwhelm the city’s defenses, they’d simply be channeled into the newly converted waterways. And perhaps the step after that would be to fill those canals with robot boats.

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