On a walk or bike ride home from the grocery store, a new robot is designed to carry your groceries. Following a few feet behind, it can navigate a crowded urban sidewalk while you walk unencumbered. Once you teach it the route, it can also go back to the store on its own.
The cargo bot, called Gita, is in development at the Boston offices of Piaggio Fast Forward, the American offshoot of Piaggio, the Italian company best known for making the Vespa. If the Vespa was a postwar innovation, created to navigate bombed-out Italian streets more nimbly than a car, the Gita is the company’s take on 21st-century mobility.
“We’re focused on this issue of occupying and being able to navigate boundary lines and spaces that are not available to automobiles–namely sidewalks, civic spaces, and being able to move across indoor and outdoor thresholds,” Jeffrey Schnapp, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, tells Co.Exist.
The company has a different vision of the autonomous future than most vehicle makers: Instead of streets filled with autonomous cars, it imagines most people walking, biking, and skating with their robots in tow.
“The model of the city built around and sacrificed on the altar of automobiles and automobility is a 20th-century model, and we really see that as a model that’s going to be replaced by new models,” says Schnapp, pointing to a growing number of pedestrian zones in cities. “All kinds of aspects of economic activity are going to be taking place there, and they need an infrastructure. They need vehicles that can travel in those spaces.”
For people who own cars, the Gita is designed to make walking a more appealing option. “One consideration was really: ‘What is the threshold at which we stop walking places?” he says. “When do people typically decide this is too much weight, or too burdensome or cumbersome an object for me to carry, and I’m going to get in the car . . . we did a lot of research on this and we came to the conclusion that there really are some clear thresholds in that regard.”
The robot, which is 26 inches tall, can carry 40 pounds of cargo (another robot the company is developing, meant for delivery people, can carry up to 250 pounds). It’s enough, the designers believe, to help people make the choice to bike or walk in situations when they would have driven in the past.
For people who already walk or bike everywhere, the robot is just meant to make everyday life easier. Unlike drone delivery startups, the company isn’t focused on eliminating the need for someone to ever leave the house.
“The starting point for us was not can we build a robot that can replace human functionality or that can operate without humans,” he says. “We actually started from the opposite point of view: Can we build a robot that allows humans to do things that they already do better, and more efficiently?”
Gita might typically be used in a “follow” mode, where it stays a few paces behind its human. Optical detection and other sensors help it avoid other people, and the robot is also designed to move as nimbly as a human. If can also travel on its own, but needs to learn the route from a person first.
“It learns it by following an expert navigator wearing the wearable, namely you or me,” says Schnapp. “As humans we have tremendously sophisticated abilities to interpret a pedestrian landscape that machine vision struggles with, because sidewalks are not perfect geometrical rectangular structures. Typically they’re pretty eccentric.”
The robot can also be used by businesses, as the robots help workers carry supplies around a factory or building site, and the company expects to launch first to businesses, in 2018. The consumer market is likely to quickly follow, as the cost of some of the hardware comes down.
The designers are currently testing the first prototype vehicles in Boston streets, and will be running a series of pilots over the next six months, testing the devices on college campuses, commercial environments, and other cities.