Self-steer­ing suit­cases brings to life Pratch­ets’ sapi­ent ‘Luggage’

The Witness - Wheels - - MOTORING - BEN COXWORTH AND ALWYN VILJOEN

TECH­NOL­OGY of­ten fol­lows sci­ence fic­tion sto­ries, but when it comes to two types of moving luggage that is be­ing tested around the world, fan­tasy au­thor Terry Pratch­ett must take a bow for think­ing of it first in his Luggage char­ac­ter.

Bri­tish com­pany Star­ships Tech­nolo­gies’ was first to launch what it calls “side­walk ro­bots” last year (as re­ported on in Wheels) and a fleet of them is be­ing tested in 59 cities in 16 coun­tries. Now Pi­ag­gio Fast For­ward, the mak­ers of Vespa scoot­ers in the U.S., has launched the Gita, a self-bal­anc­ing two-wheeled cargo ro­bot.

Gita’s name is pro­nounced “jee-ta,” which means “short trip” in Ital­ian. It sits 66 cm tall, has a zero turn­ing ra­dius, and can travel at bi­cy­cle-like speeds of up to 35 km/h. That said, it’s also ca­pa­ble of match­ing the walk­ing speed of its hu­man op­er­a­tor, fol­low­ing them as they mo­sey hands-free down the side­walk or along su­per­mar­ket aisles.

By com­par­i­son, the Star­ship street ro­bot uses six-wheels to bal­ance and can carry up to 10 kilo­grams with space for four full shop­ping bags, and the battery lasts for roughly 8 km, or two hours.

Gita can carry up to 18 kg of gro­ceries or other goods, fol­low­ing its owner or even strik­ing out on its own, like the Star­ship street ro­bots, which are al­ready be­ing tested by the Swiss postal ser­vice for spe­cial mail and rapid par­cel de­liv­ery, as well as Post­mates on­de­mand de­liv­ery ser­vice in Wash­ing­ton DC.

But while the Star­ship is au­tonomous, Gita fol­lows a white belt with a cam­era on the front. Us­ing an ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy known as SLAM (Si­mul­ta­ne­ous Lo­cal­iza­tion and Map­ping), that sys­tem cre­ates a 3D point cloud map of the user’s en­vi­ron­ment as they travel through it. Gita is able to as­cer­tain its po­si­tion and that of its user, within that map, with help from a for­ward-fac­ing stereo cam­era sys­tem that tracks the belt.

“If you go out of the line of sight, let’s say if you turn around a cor­ner or you may go through an al­ley, Gita will soon catch up with you,” Pi­ag­gio Fast For­ward COO Sasha Hoffman told New At­las. “It still knows where it’s go­ing, be­cause it op­ti­cally has seen the path that you walked.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, once it’s fol­lowed a user through an en­vi­ron­ment, it can use the map that was cre­ated to go back through that en­vi­ron­ment au­tonomously. The user can cre­ate way­points along the way, which Gita will sub­se­quently stop at when it makes the trip again on its own. “If you walked all around your house, you could set up the kitchen, the din­ing room, the front door and the back en­trance as dif­fer­ent points on the map,” ex­plained Hoffman.

“If you were at your front door and you needed to send Gita with a pack­age to your kitchen, there’s a touch­screen in­ter­face and you could lit­er­ally touch it and tell it within two but­tons to head for the kitchen.”

Its cam­eras, along with an ul­tra­sonic range-find­ing sys­tem, con­sti­tute an ob­sta­cle-avoid­ance sys­tem that keeps it from run­ning into things. One three-hour charge of the ro­bot’s battery should be good for about eight hours of use at walk­ing speed.

Plans call for Gita to ini­tially be tri­alled in a busi­ness-to-busi­ness model. Af­ter about a year, a con­sumer ver­sion is likely to fol­low. “Pi­ag­gio has a huge his­tory of sell­ing di­rectly to the con­sumer, so there’s def­i­nitely an end game of pro­duc­ing a prod­uct at a price point that’s man­age­able for the con­sumer,” said Hoffman.

Gita will be of­fi­cially launched at event tak­ing place in Bos­ton on Fe­bru­ary 2.

PHOTOS: PI­AG­GIO AND NEW AT­LAS

LEFT: This month’s most in­no­va­tive use of the wheel is Gita, a self-bal­anc­ing, self-steer­ing suit­case that fol­lows a white belt with a cam­era on its owner. RIGHT: Star­ship’s Henry Har­ris-Bur­land shows the driv­ing skills of his side­walk ro­bots at the Wash­ing­ton DC auto show.

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