Robotic Butlers with Piaggio Fast Forward’s Sasha Hoffman

Mobility & Logistics in the Age of Robotics

  • Spoke about Gita, a personal robot for cargo by the people who created the Vespa.
  • Given the opportunity, many urban dwellers will walk up to 2 miles to a destination.
  • Personal robots for cargo encourage a healthier lifestyle while being sustainable.

Gita = a 21st century Vespa? 

Piaggio’s Vespa (Italian for “wasp”) motor scooter emerged from the rubble of World War II. Allied bombing crippled much of Italy’s industry plus many of the country’s roads. Given these conditions, Enrico Piaggio abandoned fighter plane production to meet an urgent demand for affordable personal transportation. By 1956, a million Vespas had been sold, then two million by 1960. By the 1960s, Vespa had evolved from an affordable personal utility vehicle to something bigger — a symbol of freedom and imagination.

Gita uses machine vision to follow people.

Today, Piaggio Fast Forwardis making a similar mobility bet with Gita (Italian for “short trip”). But instead of moving a physical person, Gita is a droid-like robot that moves personal cargo up to 44lbs by weight, and 2,000 cubic inches by volume. According to Sasha Hoffman, the chief operating officer of Piaggio Fast Forward, Gita augments the act of walking around urban areas. “You can walk more and have Gita follow you”, she says. “So you can do everything from go to the grocery store, to dry cleaning, to being able walk to work or campus.”

Gita uses autonomous technology to move with, and move around people and obstacles. Gita navigates like a pedestrian and can move indoors, outdoors, as well as up and down ramps that are compliant with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Most important, Gita moves at the relative speed of the pedestrian. A person can shuffle slowly or speed up all the way to a brisk walk. Hoffman believes this flexibility is fundamental to rethinking how people and their handheld goods move short distances through a city. “We are a very human centric company. Our motto is ‘autonomy for humans’”, she says. “We want to develop products that either work alongside a person that will help them move more and will lead to a healthier lifestyle.”

Gita Re-Imagines Schlepping

The dictionary defines the verb ‘to schlep’ as the act of transporting something across an urban environment — “They schlepped a tabletop eight blocks before reaching the apartment.” Anyone who’s lived in an urban environment, especially New York City, knows what it’s like to carry groceries or something awkward or heavy through public streets and/or across public transport.

Gita looking pretty beneath some LA street art.

Enter Gita, personal mobility robot for light cargo by Piaggio Fast Forward. Gita moves personal cargo like groceries up to 44lbs by weight, and 2,000 cubic inches by volume. Gita follows behind its owner by focusing on the unique qualities of the owner’s legs (insert joke here____). Gita combines that data with autonomous technology to help it move with, and move around people and obstacles. Gita can navigate like a pedestrian, moving indoors, outdoors, as well as going up and down ramps that are compliant with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

According to Sasha Hoffman, the chief operating officer of Piaggio Fast Forward, the average walking distance with Gita is around 1-2 miles. That tells her that when given the opportunity, urban dwellers like to walk. “They put their bags in Gita. They run errands”, she says. “And then they actually go for a trip for two or three hours, or walk somewhere about a mile or a mile and a half one way. Whereas if you had a case of wine, you’re definitely not walking a mile with that case of wine.”

Piaggio Fast Forward comes to the urban mobility problem from a different angle than most car companies or public transit organizations. Gita operates at a very granular level of individual mobility. It focuses on the problem of moving personal stuff in a city, something to remember next time you’re schlepping through the city.

Getting Around the Smart City

The second half of 2017 saw a bumper crop of greenfield smart city announcements. In October, Google’s subsidiary Sidewalk Labs and the city of Toronto announced a plan to develop an 800 acre slice of prime waterfront into a smart city prototype. Days later, Saudi Arabia approved a $500 billion plan to create a business and industrial zone exclusively powered by renewable energy and smart technology that extends into Jordan and Egypt. Even Bill Gates is getting into the smart city game with a November announcement that one of his subsidiaries planned to invest up to $80 million to kick start a smart city project just outside of Phoenix, AZ.

A popular cargo category.

All three projects call for multi-modal transportation that mixes public and private transport assets, autonomous vehicles and new ways to aid pedestrians and cyclists to get around. “We really do believe that in the future everyone will not be using just a car to get somewhere, or just the subway. They’ll take 2 or 3 forms of transportation to get to their end destination”, says Sasha Hoffman, the chief operating officer for Piaggio Fast Forward.

“Getting around” involves more than just moving physical people. Piaggio Fast Forward is trialing a personal mobility robot for light cargo called Gita in Los Angeles. Assuming personal mobility robots take off, Hoffman sees substantial change in the physical landscape of cities. “When thinking about a completely new city from scratch, we envision that it is human centric”, she says. “That it is meant to have a lot of parks and livable spaces, and places where people can really walk freely to everywhere that they need to go. And that you have a plethora of options to choose from for transportation.”