A cute new cargo robot called the Gitamini launches this week. For $1,850, it trails behind you while schlepping 20 pounds of stuff. It can fit a single bag of groceries, a case of beer, or a backpack — without much room to spare. A larger version is available ― for $2,950.
At those prices, are you buying it?
That pesky issue — cost — is one of the most challenging things facing robotics companies selling to consumers
The Gitamini and its bigger 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 maker of scooters and motorcycles. (Piaggio makes the Vespa scooter, which starts at about $4,200.) PFF hired the smartest robotics designers and engineers it could find, and in November 2019 the company introduced the Gita. PFF says it should be pronounced in the Italian way, with a soft G: “jee-tah.” It was initially priced at $3,250, and the company was promoting it at in-person events and festivals — until COVID-19 arrived.
I borrowed one of the bigger Gitas for a few weeks over the summer, taking it with me on errands in my Brookline neighborhood. Gita’s interface is simple: there’s only one button, which you press to get Gita’s cameras and sensors to “lock on” to the person you want it to follow. Then, when that person starts walking — or even jogging — Gita rolls happily along behind at a distance of a few feet.
Being followed by a cargo robot on a busy sidewalk is still a novelty; motorists would stop to either snap a photo, or ask, “What is that thing?” Gita followed me into a CVS, bumping into a few posts and display cabinets, but also sparking friendly conversations. Gita has an on-board speaker that pairs with a phone ― I had fun playing Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.” A group of kids learning tennis at our local park each wanted to take a turn having Gita follow them. That led to an experiment: I put a dozen tennis balls into Gita’s cargo bin, and tried to see if it could keep up with me on the court — my own mobile ball bin. It did a respectable job.
But people chuckled when I told them how much the Gita cost. And it was a pain to lug the 50-pound robot up and down my front steps whenever I wanted to take it on an errand. (The interior handles are especially badly designed; it was painful to carry it more than a few steps.) Our folding wire shopping cart — retail price, $30 — held more merchandise and was more convenient to use.
At 28 lbs., the Gitamini is about half the weight of the original and accommodates about half as much 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 less carrying capacity, it’s less utilitarian. PFF’s publicity photos show it carrying a dog’s leash and ball. But one of my recent pet-related errands with the wire shopping cart was to the store to buy three 20-pound containers of cat litter — one bag and two boxes. The Gitamini would’ve carried one of those, and the larger Gita just two.
In advance of the Gitamini’s debut, I spoke to Greg Lynn, an architect and designer who serves as PFF’s chief executive. Lynn says that over the last 15 years in the US, people have gravitated toward “high-walkability neighborhoods.” Both Gita devices can help people opt to walk rather than take their car on many trips, he says. The bots are “meant to get you outside and walking around,” Lynn says. “They’re antithetical to the ‘sit on my couch and have everything come to me’ delivery lifestyle.” That’s laudable. Lynn adds that PFF is interested in ways that a Gita might be able to follow a runner, scooter rider, or cyclist. Operating in a bike lane, versus a sidewalk, is a much easier environment for a robot to navigate, he says.
Another part of PFF’s strategy is potentially licensing the Gita’s “follow me” technology to other companies. Lynn says the company has tested it with a Spot robot, the dog-like walking device made by Boston Dynamics, so that Spot can simply follow a human, rather than being controlled with a joystick. The company is also beginning to sell fleets of Gita robots to businesses such as AtYourGate ― a delivery service that operates in airports ― and to planned communities that want to make them available as an amenity for residents.
But from the consumer’s point of view, PFF is selling an expensive replacement for that $30 wire shopping cart. PFF’s products may help break the ice with neighbors and fellow shoppers, but they also need to be stored indoors and periodically recharged. And the price is not one where we’ve seen lots of consumer robotics or mobility devices succeed. The self-balancing Segway scooter debuted at $5,000, but never caught on outside niche usage, like city tours. (Production was discontinued last year.)
Another startup, Jibo, began pitching a countertop “concierge” robot that could deliver the weather forecast, tell you who the Celtics are playing, or snap photos. It sold for $900, and the Boston company that made it shut down in 2018. Jibo couldn’t compete with Amazon’s Echo devices, intelligent speakers that were introduced at $199, and now sell for as little as $40.
The vision of companies that introduce high-priced devices is always that if they can only sell enough of them, they’ll be able to bring down the price through higher volume production — a classic chicken-and-egg problem.
An $1,850 price for the Gitamini “is going to be a hard pill for mass adoption,” according to Blade Kotelly, a former Jibo design executive who runs a consulting firm and lectures at MIT. If the company wanted to see its robots broadly adopted, Kotelly says they’d be priced at about $300. As it is, he writes via e-mail, perhaps “you’ll see a few in NYC?”
Helen Greiner was one of the founders of iRobot, the publicly-traded Bedford company that has likely sold more robots to consumers than anyone else. When it introduced the Roomba robotic vacuum, in 2002, that product sold for $200. “We had, and still have, the belief that in order for a new product category to gain traction, it has to be a price [where] people will take a risk and just try it,” Greiner says.
Greiner now runs the startup Tertill, based in North Billerica, which sells a $350 solar-powered robot that helps to weed gardens. That price, she notes, is not much more than what the Roomba initially sold for, when adjusted for inflation.
PFF’s Gita robots may find a job somewhere — and other robot companies may want to access the technology PFF has created. But at their current price, my guess is that they won’t be helping consumers run their errands.