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Startup Spotlight: Roboat

We have a diverse and dynamic group of startups in our community, each with unique backstories and experiences as entrepreneurs. The Startup Spotlight series is designed to acquaint you better with our community. This time, we're featuring Roboat, the Dutch company producing autonomous ferries.

How did you come up with the idea for the business?

Many cities struggle with congestion on the roads, while at the same time, the existing waterways seem underutilised. Why not make better use of canals and urban waterways, by using smart and zero-emission Roboats that can take care of transportation needs?

With this question, Roboat was set out in 2015 as a research project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions. This collaboration led to the creation of 22 small-scale prototypes, 2 full-scale prototypes, and the necessary supporting infrastructure over the years. Our team designed and developed every aspect of these prototypes in-house, from the hull of the Roboat to the autonomy system.

We now operate from the Marineterrein facilities, in the heart of Amsterdam. Focused on commercial urban transport vessels, Roboat aims to meet the international market demand for automation in complex water environments. We continue to refine our full-scale prototypes on Amsterdam's canals, with use case examples like our skipper assistant innovation for the Dutch ferry operator GVB, the autonomous 3D printed ferry of the future that will go to Paris during the Olympic summer ‘24, autonomous city logistics for Zoev city and an autonomous yacht for Praxis Automation. These efforts demonstrate our technology's effectiveness for multiple solutions.

Why does the industry need the solution you're providing?

Growing shortages in qualified personnel, safety concerns, and the need to optimize and streamline operations are all reasons why autonomous navigation will play a pivoting role in enabling the shift from road transport to waterways. Imagine a fleet of Roboats, that can operate 24/7, enabling safe, efficient, and green logistics and connections in cities worldwide.

Roboat offers a range of autonomy applications, from skipper support systems (levels 0-2) that enhance safety and operational efficiency, to fully automated vessels (levels 3-4), aligning with CCRN autonomy standards. Our focus encompasses coastal, harbour, and urban water commercial vessels for passengers and goods transportation. The holistic approach we adopted since the earliest beginnings of the technology, positions us well for full-on vertical integration, from vessel and infrastructure design to autonomy implementation.

At the heart of our technology is a set of hardware sensors, similar to what is used in the autonomous driving space, such as lidar, camera, and rtk-gps. This is combined with our proprietary software, enabling object detection, path planning, and centimetre-precise controlling of the vessel. The core of our technology is versatile, fitting both existing and newly built vessels as an add-on.

What have you enjoyed most about starting your own company?

1 + 1 = 3. We have experienced firsthand that, with a strong team, everything is possible. With Roboat we are tackling a very hard problem, and it is great to experience a sense of urgency in all of us within the company. Our company structure allows you to work on something that you thought could never be accomplished individually.

What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning of your journey?

As an academic spin-off, we had to make sure that we had the proper arrangements with our founding institutes. Also, we needed to work with clients, subsidies, investors, new employees, a tech roadmap, legal stuff – a lot of things at the same time! But since you work on this as a team, you slowly but surely learn and grow.

Any bits of advice for entrepreneurs getting started in this space?

Go for it, and don’t be shy to ask for advice from people with a longer track record than you. Everyone enjoys helping others if they can.

What's the plan for the future of the business? Where do you see the company in 3-5 years?

In five years, you will see Roboat technology applied in many cities in Europe and beyond. Enabling a better transportation system, with more mobility and logistic operations on the existing water infrastructure. Safe, clean, silent, and 24/7.


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