When I first met Gita the robot, it was a bit banged up. An accident in Central Park a day prior left a small jagged hole in its plastic frame, and only one wheel was lighting up as it should.
Two hours later, the poor thing also busted its front camera sensor in a crash with my office glass door.
But hey, that’s all part of testing a prototype, right?
Gita is an extremely nimble cargo bot, designed to follow its owner for miles, carrying 40 pounds of stuff inside its 2-foot-tall body.
It doesn’t have the features you’d expect of a companion robot. There are no arms. It doesn’t make small talk. There’s not even a smiley face programmed into the screen to ease your trepidation over having a robot follow your every move.
It has more in common with a scooter than a robot pet — and with good reason. It’s made by Piaggio, the Italian company behind the Vespa. With a zero-turn radius and sleek design, this intelligent bot has all the style and performance of an Italian vehicle, but the brains of the beast come from a research lab based in Boston.
There are currently four prototype Gita vehicles. When one made a visit to New York City, I got to take it for a short spin outside around our office to help me lug some groceries.
There’s nothing cooler than having your own rolling robot buddy follow you around the city. That is, until you have to strap on this massive, blocky white belt over your coat to make it work. Camera sensors are packed into what looks like a Stormtrooper costume accessory. Data gathered by the belt syncs up with camera sensors surrounding the Gita robot. That way, it can map out where I’m going, turn a corner to follow me, and not run into walls or people walking between us.
But don’t be too distracted by the belt. The creators say the final version won’t require the owner to wear something so bulky. In fact, it could just be something small you clip to a pocket.
It being a prototype, of course there were buggy moments. When the belt didn’t sync up with the robot, an engineer would step in with a remote control to steer it in the right path. (A remote drive is how Gita got into that little glass door accident that busted a sensor. Ooof. The team said future models will be made of a tougher material that’s less prone to accidental cracking.)
Gita has many tricks that my demo wasn’t set up to show off. It can travel up to 22 miles per hour so it can keep up with someone running or riding a bike. It’s able to stay close your side when you need to keep it on a tight leash — such as when entering an elevator.
The company is also working on a mode to have it park outside a store and wait for you. If you’re worried about someone rolling away with your Gita, it’s cumbersome to move, weighing in at around 50 pounds. The door latch is locked by a fingerprint scanner. And alarms will go off if someone starts messing with your bot.
It also can map an area to memorize it for future trips, so it doesn’t always need to follow someone to know where to go.
For now, the team behind the Gita is shopping it around to different businesses to test it out in office and customer-service environments. Later this year, you could see Gita trailing nurses in hospitals, or assisting bellhops in hotels.
It may be another two years before we can use Gita ourselves to carry our groceries home, lug those heavy college textbooks — or better yet, follow you around a tailgate party as your personal beer cooler.