These robots will carry water for you

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The Gitamini and its big brother, the Gita, were designed in Charlestown by Piaggio Fast Forward. PFF, as it is called, is a new product development lab set up by the Piaggio Group, an Italian manufacturer of scooters and motorcycles. (Piaggio makes the Vespa scooter, which starts at around $ 4,200.) PFF hired the smartest robotics designers and engineers it can find, and in November 2019, the company introduced the Gita. PFF says it should be pronounced Italian-style, with a soft G: “jee-tah”. It was initially priced at $ 3,250, and the company was promoting it at events and festivals in person – until COVID-19 arrived.

I borrowed one of the bigger Gitas for a few weeks over the summer, and took it with me for shopping in my neighborhood in Brookline. Gita’s interface is simple: there’s only one button, which you press to make Gita’s cameras and sensors “lock” on the person you want him to follow. Then when that person starts to walk – or even jog – Gita happily rolls behind for a distance of a few meters.

Being followed by a cargo robot on a busy sidewalk is always a novelty; motorists would stop either to take a picture or to ask, “What is this?” Gita followed me to a CVS, hitting a few posts and windows, but also sparking friendly conversations. Gita has a built-in speakerphone that pairs with a phone – I had fun playing “Mr. Roboto. A group of kids learning tennis in our local park each took turns wanting Gita to follow them. This helped. led to an experiment: I put a dozen tennis balls in Gita’s loading bin and tried to see if it could follow me around the court – my own mobile ball bin. It did a job. respectable.

But people laughed when I told them how much the Geetha cost. And it was painful to lug the 50-pound robot up and down my steps whenever I wanted to take it for a run. (The interior handles are particularly poorly designed; it was painful to carry it for more than a few steps.) Our collapsible wire shopping cart – retail price, $ 30 – held more merchandise and was more convenient to use.

At 28 lbs, the Gitamini weighs about half the weight of the original and can hold about half the cargo. It’s more convenient to store and easier to lift in and out of a trunk – or down a few front steps. But with a lower load capacity, it is less utilitarian. PFF’s publicity photos show him carrying a dog’s leash and ball. But one of my recent pet-related runs with the wire cart was to the store to buy three 20-pound containers of kitty litter – a bag and two boxes. The Gitamini would have carried one, and the larger Gita only two.

Before Gitamini started, I spoke to Greg Lynn, an architect and designer who is the Managing Director of PFF. Lynn says that over the past 15 years in the United States, people have turned to “neighborhoods with high walkability”. The two Gita devices can help people choose to walk rather than drive their cars on a lot of trips, he says. Robots are “designed to get you out and about,” Lynn says. “They are contrary to the delivery lifestyle” to sit on my couch and everything comes to mind. ” It is commendable. Lynn adds that PFF is interested in ways in which a Gita might follow a runner, scooter, or cyclist. Operating in a cycle lane, rather than on a sidewalk, is a much easier environment for a robot to navigate, he says.

Another part of PFF’s strategy is to potentially release Gita’s “follow me” technology to other companies. Lynn says the company tested it with a Spot robot, the dog-like walking device made by Boston Dynamics, so Spot could simply follow a human, rather than being controlled with a joystick. The company is also starting to sell fleets of Gita robots to companies like AtYourGate, a delivery service that operates at airports – and to planned communities that want to make them available to residents.

But from a consumer perspective, PFF is selling an expensive replacement for that $ 30 wire shopping cart. PFF’s products can help break the ice with neighbors and other shoppers, but they also need to be stored indoors and recharged periodically. And the price isn’t where we’ve seen a lot of consumer robotics or mobility devices succeed. The self-balancing Segway scooter debuted at $ 5,000, but was never used in outdoor niches like city tours. (Production was stopped last year.)

Another startup, Jibo, has started launching a countertop “concierge” robot that could provide weather forecasts, tell you who’s playing Celtics, or take pictures. It sold for $ 900 and the Boston company that shut it down in 2018. Jibo couldn’t compete with Amazon’s Echo devices, smart speakers that were introduced at $ 199 and are now selling. for as little as $ 40.

The view of companies that introduce high-priced devices is always that if they can only sell enough of them, they will be able to bring the price down through higher volume production – a classic chicken-and-egg problem. ‘egg.

A $ 1,850 price tag for the Gitamini “is going to be a tough pill to mass adopt,” according to Blade Kotelly, a former Jibo design manager who runs a consulting firm and teaches at MIT. If the company wanted to see its robots widely adopted, Kotelly says they would cost around $ 300. As it is, he wrote via email, maybe “you’ll see a few in New York?” “

Helen Greiner was one of the founders of iRobot, the Bedford-listed company that probably sold more robots to consumers than anyone else. When he introduced the Roomba robot vacuum in 2002, this product sold for $ 200. “We had, and still have, the conviction that for a new product category to gain ground, it must be a price [where] people are going to take a risk and try it, ”says Greiner.

Greiner now runs the North Billerica-based startup Tertill, which sells a $ 350 solar robot that helps weed gardens. That price, she notes, is not much more than what Roomba was originally sold for, once adjusted for inflation.

PFF’s Gita robots may find a job somewhere – and other robot companies may want to access the technology PFF created. But at their current price, I guess they won’t help consumers with their shopping.


Scott Kirsner can be contacted at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on twitter @ScottKirsner.



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