Illinois House approves regulations for futuristic personal robots


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SPRINGFIELD — Futuristic technology could give Illinoisans their own personal robots that follow them wherever they go and carry supplies like groceries.

In anticipation of a summer rollout of this technology, the Illinois Legislature is moving a bill to regulate it. But many aspects remain unclear, including how strong demand will be and what the technology will look like in final form.

State Rep. Jaime Andrade, D-Chicago, is sponsoring House Bill 245, which seeks to regulate the use of "mobile carrying devices." It is headed to the Senate after being passed unanimously by the House last week.

Andrade's bill is in response to a particular product, the personal robot Gita, in development at Massachusetts-based Piaggio Fast Forward, an affiliate of the Italian company that makes Vespa scooters.

Gita is a 50-pound spherical robot Piaggio is designing to carry things to make it easier for a pedestrian to walk, ride a bike or get around by other means. It tracks and follows movements of a belt worn by an owner and uses cameras to survey the surrounding environment, according to the company's website.

Neither Andrade nor the only organization to initially oppose the bill knows when the technology might show up on sidewalks, as it is still a prototype.

Aaron Winters, an Illinois lobbyist who represents Piaggio, said it's expected to be available by this summer, which is "why it is important for the legislation to pass." But the product's potential raises concerns about pedestrian safety and home-rule powers, among other things.

Kyle Whitehead is the spokesman for the Chicago-based Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for better biking, walking and public transit in the Chicago area. He said his group was originally opposed to Andrade's legislation because of pedestrian comfort and safety.

"We were concerned with the potential that these devices would result in safety issues, especially for older adults and people with disabilities, or people who are generally not as mobile and able to get out of the way as easily," Whitehead said.

One concern resulted in an amendment changing from the maximum distance between a personal robot and its owner from 25 feet to 10 feet. Another amendment prohibited people from using the device to transport another person.

"You'd think you wouldn't have to legislate this," Andrade said. "But someone might put their baby in there and God forbid they forget them, you know."

Whitehead said the third of the large concerns — also eased by the amendment — was making sure home-rule municipalities can regulate the devices when they start showing up on city sidewalks.

"There's so much uncertainty around this device — what the speed would be, what the weight would be, how quickly it would be adopted and how prevalent it would be," Whitehead said.

Winters, the lobbyist for the creator of Gita, said the company was happy to see the legislation pass the House last week.

"Mobile carriers such as the Gita are positioned to help Illinoisans walk more, get out of their cars and live a more active lifestyle," he said.

While Andrade's legislation received few witness slips in support or opposition to the measure, one stood out. Matthew Slade, a village of Durand trustee who frequently files witness slips supporting legislation he's passionate about or thinks will help small towns, said he likes the technology.

"I think it is really cool and sci-fi-like," Slade said by email.

Capitol News Illinois is a newly created nonprofit news service operated by the Illinois Press Foundation. Its mission is to provide credible and unbiased coverage of state government to the more than 400 daily and weekly newspapers that are members of the Illinois Press Association.