What Are Cargo Robots?

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28 November, 2019

With Christmas a few weeks away, many Americans are busy preparing lists of what to give friends or loved ones for the holiday.

This holiday season, people will be able to buy a cargo-carrying robot that follows them around like a dog. But it is unclear if the device will be a popular gift.

Large companies like Amazon, FedEx and Ford have already been experimenting with sending delivery robots to homes across the United States.

Now an Italian company is offering robots directly to consumers. The company, Piaggio, is best known as the manufacturer of the Vespa scooter.

The new robot, called the Gita, weighs about 23 kilograms and costs $3,250. The name Gita comes from the Italian word for a short, pleasurable trip.

The robot's creators had short trips in mind when they designed it. The Gita is a "hands-free carrier" that can hold fruits, vegetables and other objects as it follows its owner down the street.

The Gita does not require use of a telephone or wireless device; it also does not use GPS technology or facial recognition.

"It basically just locks onto you and tracks you," said Jeffrey Schnapp. He is a co-founder of Piaggio Fast Forward.

How much should a robot cost?

Whether the device will be a success is not yet clear. Tech industry experts are already saying the Gita will fail unless the company finds a more useful purpose. Examples include carrying tools around hospitals, factory floors or places where products are stored.

J.P. Gownder follows technology for the market research company Forrester. He says the Gita could be priced too high.

"That's a lot of money for what is in effect just a cargo-carrying robot that's going to carry your groceries," he said.

Startup companies like Starship Technologies have a different business plan for their own delivery robots. Starship charges users as little as $1.99 if they order one of its rovers to bring coffee or a meal.

So far, the best places to find the company's six wheelers are U.S. colleges: The University of Houston and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example. The robots can carry up to 9 kilograms.

Sadie Garcia is a student at the University of Houston. "I love them. I think they're so cute," she said, as one of the machines arrived carrying a sandwich for her. Garcia said she was so cold she did not want to leave her room.

Starship co-founder Ahti Heinla said his company once thought about selling the machines directly to consumers. But the business dropped the idea after discovering it would have to sell them for more than $3,000 each.

Amazon is experimenting with a similar-looking machine that transports retail goods to a few U.S. neighborhoods. FedEx is testing its own delivery rover vehicle in partnership with other businesses, such as Pizza Hut, Walmart, Target and Walgreens.

So far, none are as far along as Starship, which has hundreds of its machines already in service.

Ground-based or Aerial Deliveries?

While Forrester's Gownder expressed concerns about the Gita, he is more hopeful about delivery robots such as the Starship. He thinks their autonomy will help save labor costs.

Gownder said the important question is whether ground-based rovers or aerial delivery drones will be more successful.

The wheeled cargo robots currently in use have limitations.

And anyone who is simply looking to pull home products without heavy lifting can find durable wagons for less than $100.

I'm Susan Shand.

Matt O'Brien reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

cargo - n. goods carried on a ship, aircraft, or vehicle

delivery – n. the act of transporting and releasing something

consumer – n. someone or something that uses goods

lock – v. to make a secure connection

track – v. to follow

cute – adj. having a pleasing appearance

autonomy – n. self-directing freedom

durable - adj. staying strong and in good condition over a long period of time

wagon – n. a four-wheeled vehicle for transporting goods