In an industrial building located at the edge of Boston and Somerville, a team of innovators are working on what they believe will be the future of everyday transportation.
Gita, a light-blue, spherical cargo machine—slightly larger than an automobile wheel—is designed to help humans navigate 21st century “granular” urban spaces.
Sasha Hoffman, chief operations officer of Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF), suggests to think of Gita as more like a companion. She explains that PFF focuses on “expanding options for humans” so that they can better focus on the complex demands and tasks of the modern world.
This high-tech transporter is the brainchild of PFF, a subdivision of the Italian automotive manufacturer Piaggio that has created various lightweight vehicles for over 130 years such as the Vespa scooter. PFF moved its work to Boston a mere 18 months ago.
Hoffman noted that PFF chose to base its development in Boston for many reasons, including practicality—PFF chief executive officer, Jeffrey Schnapp already had connections within the city because he founded the Harvard Metalab.
But PFF also selected Boston for its reputation as a vibrant hub for technology and robotics, and for the young talent rising from universities in the area.
Gita, pronounced ‘jee-ta,’ is designed in a round, ball shape with a shell of carbon fiber. Standing at about 26 inches tall, it sports two parallel wheel belts on either side which allow for motorized movement.
The body has several cameras embedded, as well as a handle at the top and center to open the main compartment.
This storage space allows users to put up to 40 pounds of cargo, such as groceries or packages for delivery. Gita can move for up to eight continuous hours on one battery, and can be recharged via standard outlet.
Like a well-behaved pet, the fully autonomous Gita will follow its user around, turning and stopping when required. Rather than utilizing laser sensors to build a 3D picture, the robot maps its environment in a 3D-point cloud with more traditional video cameras. Gita uses a stereoscopic camera to perform this feat, along with several other fisheye cameras to provide a 360-degree view around the robot.
Gita follows people not by tracking them, but by comparing its view of the world to one captured from a set of cameras on a belt worn by the person it’s following.
This allows the robot to follow a person’s route long after he or she has traveled it. According to Schnapp, the video mapping system can be less reliable in poor lighting or bad weather, so developers may add a light to it.
“The thing that separates PFF from the rest is that ultimately, we are a human-centric company,” Hoffman said. “We aren’t looking to replace humans by any means. All our technology is centered around solving specific problems. That’s evinced in the way that Gita is always following the path of its user, like an asset when needed.”
PFF’s founders want to emphasize that everyday robotics don’t have to be intimidating. They worked on various models of Gita before settling on the current one, which is as functional as it is friendly to look at.
The company is proud of the design, which users so far have commended for its minimalism—and, as Hoffman noted, just for “looking cute.” Additionally, the robot maintains an average pace of a human, with a max speed of about 22 miles per hour.
The idea is that Gita can keep up with its user at top speeds—even if a person is riding a bike—and can just as easily slow down.
The lights that emanate from the wheels allow for Gita to communicate with the user, so that it doesn’t seem so “cold or unresponsive, like so many other machines do.”
Hoffman explained that the engineers at PFF designed Gita to be used by anyone—from regular household users to delivery services—who is regularly on the move. Following its product debut on Feb. 2, PFF hopes to launch pilot tests of Gita in local campuses around Boston.
Even with the successful technological development, PFF still faces an issue that concerns many other robotics companies: how they should integrate automated machines like Gita into everyday human life.
Hoffman noted that PFF is leading the charge in testing the limits of autonomous vehicles, hoping to educate and deliver products that make a future of integrating this technology into everyday lives. But as of right now, the vision of that future varies.
“We personally envision a world where everything can coexist—skateboards, cars, humans, animals,” Hoffman said. “And, alongside all that, Gita as well.”