BOSTON — From running errands locally without having to get into a car to carrying items hands-free, mobile robots could make urban and suburban life easier. Piaggio Fast Forward Inc. today announced the public availability of its new gita robot, which is designed to carry up to 40 lb. and follow a user.
Since introducing gita in 2017, Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF) has refined the robot’s movement, payload capacity, communications, and external design. Unlike autonomous mobile robots intended for warehouses or commercial deliveries, gita, which means “short trip” in Italian, is designed for consumers.
“From students to working professionals, new parents to grandparents, gita empowers people of all ages to more actively enjoy their surroundings and to interact with their communities in a more meaningful way,” stated Greg Lynn, co-founder and CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward.
Keeping it simple for success
Piaggio Fast Forward is the innovation arm of Italy-based Piaggio Group, which was founded in 1884 and is best known as the maker of the Vespa scooters. Piaggio Fast Forward was founded in 2015.
“With all products, gita in particular, it’s always a challenge to stick to one’s vision of the core functions,” Lynn told The Robot Report. “It’s a counterintuitive approach to a robot — you don’t want to have customers get distracted by the technology.”
“With 60 engineers and roboticists, we have so much talent and so many ideas, the challenge was keeping it simple and making the robot useful to the maximum number of people,” he said. “We want people to see gita and think of it carrying stuff for them rather than ordering burritos.”
gita weighs 50 lb. and is designed to keep up with a walking person at speeds up to 6 mph. The robot can roll on inclines and is designed mainly for sidewalks rather than stairs, sandy beaches, grassy lawns, or snow-covered streets.
“We could make gita go faster, but we worked on its balance, acceleration, and navigation,” said Lynn. “It is able to accelerate and decelerate quickly and to stick with a leader. Speed gets computationally expensive.”
With a standard electrical plug, gita can recharge in less than two hours, and it can run for up to four hours of continual operation. The robot is designed to be stored in a garage or near a door rather than to roll around inside a household, Lynn said.
“It’s pretty easy to maintain,” he said. “gita can go around in the rain, but before you bring inside, park it once so the water in the wheels and shell drains out.”
The robot uses visual sensors to track its human leader, but it does not record video to respect privacy. “By sensing, understanding, and anticipating human behavior, gita powers autonomy for humans,” said Piaggio Fast Forward.
gita a good sidewalk citizen
“It’s really important to us to have good pedestrian etiquette; we want to be good citizens on sidewalks,” said Lynn. “We’re focused on walking speeds right now rather than following runners or bicycles.”
“For safety, we needed to make sure gita works in direct sunlight,” he said. “It’s looking at pedestrians, not just the person it’s following.”
“If someone gets between the robot and its leader, it will hesitate and then speed up and catch up,” explained Lynn. “As we keep improving the software, it’s getting difficult to get between the leader and the robot as it dynamically follows. If it loses track of the person, it just ‘sits down.'”
“Unlike the prototype models, the latest version of gita includes dynamic balancing, and the wheels have been moved relative to its center of gravity,” Lynn said. “When it sits down, it’s statically stable.”
Other improvements to gita’s design include reduced weight and footprint while increasing cargo space, fenders that mostly cover its wheels, and quieter operation. The robot also includes a phone-charging port.
Communications and user interface
The robot is designed to be easy to use, with two buttons. Once gita pairs with a leader, the robot will follow behind them, keeping pace.
“We wanted something so intuitive that you cold teach a 5-year-old to use it,” Lynn said. “We’ve had it around hundreds of kids, and they were teaching one another how to use it.”
Not only does the robot come in three colors, but it also indicates power levels and pairing status through sound, colored lights, and touch. Piaggio Fast Forward worked with the Berklee College of Music to build gita’s library of sounds to communicate its state.
Although consumer and social robots have struggled in the past year, Lynn was optimistic about gita’s prospects. “A lot of people thought we need robot friends, but we’re definitely not that,” he said. “We saw the success of smart speakers and how people were not satisfied with humanoid robots.”
“Four years ago, we made the strategic decision to not give gita a personality or make it like a dog,” Lynn recalled. “We started with the DNA of Vespa and Piaggio Group — we set out to build a lifestyle-improving product, to help people engage with their families and neighborhoods. If anything, we have competition from things like ride hailing replacing walking.”
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App needed for gita updates
A smartphone app is highly recommended but not mandatory. It is necessary for sharing gita accessibility, locking and unlocking the cargo bin, receiving alerts on the robot’s status, and streaming audio via Bluetooth wireless technology through gita’s speakers.
“We don’t want people walking with their phones, but the app is useful for getting messages,” Lynn said. “We do think a lot about security, but we don’t want to overdo it. Once it’s registered, if the phone is within 8 ft., you can just press the two buttons without the phone. If a phone isn’t linked to a particular gita, it’s useless and can’t be unlocked. When it’s parked and not authenticated, it won’t roll.”
In addition, the app enables Piaggio Fast Forward to push out software updates, which do not require a subscription.
“We’ll be adding more features as we get more gitas out in the world,” Lynn said. “Every time it’s in Wi-Fi range, gita will update its odometry. While we don’t save images, the robot does note if it unpairs for even a fraction of a second or has errors.”
“We’re constantly improving the product as we go and will push out updates over the air,” he added. “We expect to upgrade major features and gita’s intelligence every four to six months, and you’d need the app for that.”
Mobile robots for consumers
The robot will be available on Nov. 18, 2019, at a retail price of $3,250. People interested in ordering a gita can register at Mygita.com.
“We’re assembling everything in Boston, and we’re already producing tens of units to fill our supply chain,” said Lynn. “We can produce more if we need to because of demand, and we have room to grow.”
Last year, Piaggio Fast Forward added a 10,000-sq.-ft. production site in Charlestown, Mass.
The robot’s price includes delivery anywhere in the U.S. “In the continental U.S., we can deliver it within two business days. We’ll set up the date and try to call three times,” Lynn said. “gita drives out of its own box, which we can take away. For Alaska and Hawaii, we’ll ship gita by FedEx.”
Could gita get snow tires? Piaggio Fast Forward is looking at additional features.
“We have a whole pipeline of products, but right now, we’ll look at feedback from the market and customers,” Lynn said. “We’re starting a mobile tour with dozens of gitas and ambassadors to demonstrate it, starting in Southern California in a few weeks.”
Piaggio Fast Forward’s gita tour will come to Florida early in 2020, followed by Texas and the rest of the U.S., said Lynn.
“More and more, we’ve seen the walkability index driving development across the U.S.,” he said. “People want wide sidewalks and to live less than a mile from shopping and schools. We think gita will have success in suburbs and exurbs.”