ECONOMY

Robot shopping companions prove popular with the elderly in UK trial

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The world’s first trial of “cargo robots” to help elderly people with their shopping, under way in Newcastle, is successfully encouraging participants to go out walking more frequently.

The National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University — working with Piaggio Fast Forward, US subsidiary of the Italian scooter manufacturer — started testing three Gita robots in the city centre in March.

“The feedback from our participants is fantastic,” Nic Palmarini, leader of the project, told the British Science Festival in Chelmsford. “Having a robotic companion to carry their shopping promotes a healthier lifestyle because people are walking out to shop more frequently.”

A Gita robot is paired with an individual, following him or her around while carrying up to 23kg of goods inside its body. It can move as fast as six miles per hour, if its owner breaks into a jog, and has a battery life of six hours.

The robot’s six cameras give it 360 degree vision, enabling it to detect its owner while using AI to learn about its surroundings.

“Gita is not a classic anthropomorphic robot,” said Palmarini, “but its lights and sounds make it seem more like a faithful dog, making sounds and little movements to show that it’s ready to walk with you.”

In the Newcastle trial, which includes 50 people over the age of 70, participants love the way the robots become a talking point while they are out shopping and therefore increase their social interactions.

“Children also want to visit their grandparents more when they have a robot at their home,” Palmarini observed.

While the project runs, the researchers are looking for ways to improve Gita as a companion for the elderly. One refinement is a cushion that fits over the cargo lid on top of the robot, enabling a shopper to sit and rest while out shopping.

The Gita robot can move as fast as six miles per hour © Matt O’Brien/AP

Piaggio launched Gita in the US in late 2019, where the robots have been bought mainly by younger tech-savvy consumers at a price of $3,250 each. They are not yet on sale in the UK.

Pamela Knight-Davidson, an expert on health technology at Anglia Ruskin University, said one appealing feature of Gita for the elderly is its simplicity. To turn the robot on and then pair with it the user just has to press one large button while standing in front of the cameras. No mobile phone is needed.

Gita copes well with the steep streets of central Newcastle and there have been no accidents, Palmarini said.

Officials at Newcastle city council are talking about setting up a small fleet of Gita robots that residents could borrow to take out shopping, if the trial continues to give successful results, he added.

In the US, Piaggio is investigating business applications for Gita beyond the consumer market. The robots will carry travellers’ luggage around Cincinnati International Airport, while food services company Delivery Co-op in Lexington, Kentucky, will use them for local grocery deliveries.

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