Robot Pals Developed in Charlestown Could Change the Future of Cities

October 26, 2018
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The vision of the future has come clearer in Charlestown’s ‘Lost Village’ on an out of the way corner of the Town about a block behind the End of the World Tavern.

Piaggio Co-Founder Jeffrey Schnapp (left) shows off a Gita robot being worked on to Secretary Jay Ash and Councilor Lydia Edwards.

It’s a strange place for transforming society at large, but the owners of Piaggio Fast Forward on Roland Street believe that their companion robot ‘Gita’ will change the way people move around in Boston and other urban areas.

The small little robots – about two-feet tall, circular and equipped with two large bicycle-like tires – has the odd task of following its human owner around. That task is designed to help people walk more freely as the robot carries things like groceries, books, and anything that one now has to lug in a backpack or their arms. Using Bluetooth technology tied to one’s cell phone, a complex series of cameras and sensors informs the Gita about where to go and how fast to go there. That leaves the pedestrian freer to “hold the hand of their partner or make sure their children are safe,” said company officials.

At times, it can remain several feet behind the owner, but at other times it can speed up to be right next to the owner – such as when it is in a crosswalk. All of that and more were unveiled during a public event with State Secretary Jay Ash, State Rep. Dan Ryan and Councilor Lydia Edwards – among others – on Tuesday morning in the Piaggio headquarters in Charlestown.

“Unlike a lot of robot companies that focus on sending robots out to do tasks without humans, we say let’s develop products that extend and expand human capabilities,” said Jeffrey Schnapp, co-founder and Chief Visionary Officer. “If I’m a person who has mobility problems, we can create a vehicle that understands sidewalk etiquette and can help.”

In fact, COO Mitch Weiss said they have developed a user profile, and it ranges from hip, urban young people looking to live without a car or rideshare, as well as those in their 50s and beyond who are looking for help getting around.

“That’s our first application, to get people to ditch their second car,” he said. “We did a lot of market analysis and it’s astronomical how many short trips people use their car for. We believe they would be easily replaced with the Gita. It can also supplant the need for Uber.”

Added Schnapp, “A big part of what we’re doing is trying to increase the pedestrianism of our cities and get people out of their motor vehicles…Let Gita hold your stuff…Gita is a way to invite you to walk more and not have to carry all of your stuff – including groceries…We want people to walk. We want them to engage in their community.”

Right now, Piaggio has created 50 Gita’s at its headquarters and are working out the bugs, but they are primed to begin manufacturing next year. Schnapp said they plan to manufacture 6,000 vehicles in 2019, but would ramp that up to about 32,000 in 2020 – giving the company 40,000 vehicles made by 2020.

While they do foresee uses in fleet, such as for supermarkets or municipalities or factories, the prime focus will be on consumers.

Weiss said they will go 7 mph and can go at full capacity with a full payload at an 8 percent grade, but would have reduced speed at a 16 percent grade. So far, they haven’t mastered how it would work in the snow, Weiss said, noting it would likely perform like a bicycle.

Ash said he sees many different applications for the Gita and was excited to learn more about it.
“This is another chapter of the cool stuff that is happening in Massachusetts,” he said. “This would have applications we don’t even know yet. We were just at Raytheon and I could see this being a valuable thing to follow the workers around at a place like Raytheon.”

Schnapp said they are currently looking for about 10,000 square feet to build a manufacturing facility near Charlestown, and they are also looking for places to pilot the Gita while they work out the bugs outside of the lab.

“We think the Gita will play a big role in people’s lives,” said Schnapp. “We’re in this for the long-term.”

Piaggio has been located in Charlestown for the past three years, and moved to its headquarters on Roland Street last April.