As I walked down a New York City street on a beautiful fall day, people stared. But they weren’t looking at me. They were fixated on the small round robot that followed a few feet behind me, stopping when I stopped, speeding up when I picked up my pace, and carefully rolling down the curb as I started to cross the street.
My robot companion’s name was Gita—a semi-autonomous robot designed to carry your stuff for you. Its plethora of sensors and cameras lock onto the volume of your body, using your legs as a guide to navigate the streets. Gita could keep up with me as I wandered, though it couldn’t tackle curbs and I was able to lose it relatively easily with a sharp turn or all-out sprint (it can travel up to six miles per hour).
Designed to convince suburban families to actually walk in their neighborhood rather than drive everywhere, Gita can hold up to 40 pounds, and its trashcan-like cavity can fit two shopping bags—certainly not enough for a Costco run. But at a time when the arrival of autonomous vehicles and robots has largely been delayed, Gita strikes a clever middle ground by relying on people to do the tough work of navigating through a city’s streets.
While it’s been designed to make walkable neighborhoods more accessible, Gita’s price tag is far from it: It costs a whopping $3,250. That’s a lot for the high-tech equivalent of a granny cart. In comparison, the cart I proudly use to do my grocery shopping every week cost $40, can hold a lot more than just two bags, and has a special set of wheels that are supposed to help it climb stairs.
That’s something Gita doesn’t have: the ability to carry my groceries up to my fourth-floor apartment. On top of the cost, that makes it a hard sell for anyone whose daily or weekly walking habits include navigating stairs, such as city dwellers like myself who live in apartments without elevators. You probably don’t want to try picking it up, either. (Gita weighs 50 pounds, but fully packed, it might reach 90 pounds.)
“We looked at stair climbing as a problem,” says Jeffrey Schnapp, a cofounder of Piaggio Fast Forward, the startup owned by Vespa-maker Piaggio Group, which will start selling Gita in late November. “The kind of vehicle you’d have to construct would be a monster that nobody would ever want, with cost levels that would make it unaffordable.”
Instead, Gita is designed for the ADA-compliant world of curb cuts and ramps. “You can’t fix all of the mobility challenges of the legacy built environment, but you can build vehicles like Gita for the present and future, which are being built to the standards of access that are increasingly urgent,” Schnapp says.
Built for the street
Piaggio Fast Forward doesn’t envision you using Gita around the house; instead, when at home, you park it like a bicycle or motorcycle. But you’ll also need to charge it—Gita can run for four hours continuously on a single charge—making a garage with a power outlet the ideal place to stow it. The robot is better suited to walkable suburbs and developments than a city like New York, where there’s a good chance someone would walk off with it if you left it outside, even if the inner storage space is locked.
Gita could be useful for people who have mobility issues that limit how much they can walk because they can’t carry anything over a few pounds; it can learn to follow people in wheelchairs or who have canes. But the team has found during two and a half years of testing that the people who have been most drawn to the robot so far tend to be women in their late thirties who do a lot of neighborhood shopping. Another demographic is sandwich parents, a term referring to people who are taking care of their children and parents at the same time—and generally have a lot of stuff to carry.
Even if these groups of people live in walkable neighborhoods, walking may not be an option they consider because they have to tote so many things with them. CEO Greg Lynn says a sizeable number of car trips happen within a walkable distance. But with Gita, the idea is that people could make the decision to walk, rather than drive, for those kinds of short trips.
“This is an alternative to the second car,” says Lynn, a former architect who previously built moving furniture and who launched Piaggio Fast Forward four years ago. He’s hoping that customers will see the $3,250 price tag as a much cheaper car, rather than a vastly overpriced granny cart.
The robot costs so much because there’s a lot of technology hiding under the hood. The robot uses a clever balancing system with inertial sensors that help it navigate differently slanted surfaces (it can handle hills up to a 16% grade). It’s also packed with sensors and cameras at its head, which provide 220 degrees of visibility, plus an infrared sensor on the back so it doesn’t accidentally bump into someone while reversing. Gita uses the input it gets from these cameras and sensors to lock onto the human form so it can follow you around, and to detect obstacles it needs to avoid. As it moves, it reminds me of the motion of a Segway, swaying backward and forward based on the ground underneath (though its creators say it doesn’t use the same kind of balancing system).
The cameras are very low in resolution, so they aren’t supposed to pick up any identifying information about you, and they do not see your face at all. All of Gita’s computing happens using its own processors, so it doesn’t require Wi-Fi or any access to the cloud. It does, however, sport a Wi-Fi connection that it uses to send odometer information back to its makers to help improve navigation.
Plug and play
Based on my short demo with a Gita, the robot is relatively easy to use: You only have to pair it to your smartphone via an app once before it will automatically connect via Bluetooth when you’re within eight feet, which means you don’t need to take out your phone to use it. (The app also allows you to lock the cavity, though that doesn’t mean someone wouldn’t be able to pick up the bot and walk off with it.)
Tap the small button on its snout, and Gita gets up off the ground and starts balancing on its two wheels, ready to take off (when you press the button again, the robot “sits down,” as Lynn says, and plops its rear on the ground). The larger button helps the device pair to your body, and it makes a pleasant chirping sound—designed in partnership with the Berklee College of Music in Boston—once it’s spotted you and can follow your lead.
After telling Gita to follow me, we began our neighborhood walk. As I strolled around, I kept glancing back to see if Gita was still there, and it always was, trundling after me like an obedient little puppy. I did have to modify my navigation slightly by always heading for the curb. I would certainly have to walk much more slowly to make sure Gita could move through a crowded space—and I’d never think to bring it somewhere like Times Square or a bustling farmers’ market.
But despite all the caveats, the experience of walking with Gita was surprisingly delightful, a glimpse into what may convince more people to navigate their neighborhoods on their own two feet. Now, if only it could go up stairs.