Japan launches ‘humble and charming’ delivery robots


“Excuse me, passing by,” a friendly four-wheeled robot says as it dodges pedestrians on a sidewalk outside Tokyo during a test run.

In Japan, this little robot will start a “professional” life as a delivery person in a few months, a relief for many companies that suffer from a lack of manpower.

A traffic law that authorizes the circulation of autonomous delivery robots comes into force in the country in April.

Its creators are confident that the robots will help provide goods and services to elderly people in sparsely populated rural areas.

However, obstacles such as security persist and much work is needed before they are spread, said Hinashi Taniguchi, president of robotics company ZMP.

“They are a novelty in human society, so it’s natural for them to be uncomfortable,” Taniguchi told AFP.

The robots will be monitored by remote control and by people who can intervene if necessary.

Taniguchi considered it important for the robots to be “humble and charming” in order to inspire confidence.

ZMP has partnered with giants such as Japan Post Holdings to test the robots in Tokyo.

Manufactured by the company, the “DeliRo” robot has a charming appearance and large expressive eyes, which may water if a pedestrian blocks its path.

“All the children here know his name”, stated the president of the ZMP.

“Hot beverages?”

The Japanese population is one of the oldest in the world, with around 30% of people over the age of 65. Many live in sparsely populated rural areas without easy access to daily needs.

The shortage of labor in cities and the new rules that limit truck drivers’ working hours make it difficult for companies to meet delivery demands.

“The shortage of workers in the transport sector will be a challenge in the future,” said engineer Dai Fujikawa of electronics giant Panasonic, which is currently testing delivery robots in Tokyo and neighboring Fujisawa.

“I hope that our robots will be used where they are needed to alleviate manpower shortages,” Fujikawa told AFP.

Similar robots are used in countries like the UK and China. In Japan, however, there are concerns about the possibilities of collision and theft.

Regulations set a maximum speed of 6 km/h, so “the chances of injury in a collision are relatively low,” said Yutaka Uchimura, a robotics engineer at the Shibaura Institute of Technology (ITS).

However, if the robot “leaves the curb and collides with a vehicle due to a discrepancy between the pre-installed location information and the actual environment, that could be very concerning,” he said.

Fujikawa says that one person simultaneously monitors four robots at the Fujisawa control center through cameras and is automatically alerted when the robot is stopped by an obstacle.

A person must intervene in these cases and in high-risk areas, such as at intersections.

So far, the tests have involved delivering medicine and food to Fujisawa residents or selling snacks in Tokyo with phrases like: “Another cold day, huh? How about some hot drinks?”

gradual process

“Sounds like a great idea to me,” said Naoko Kamimura, after buying cough drops from a Hakobo in Tokyo.

“With robots, you can shop more casually. When there’s nothing you want to buy, you can leave without feeling guilty,” he said.

In the face of pressure to protect human employment, authorities rule out that Japanese streets are full of robots.

“The spread of robots will be a gradual process,” Hiroki Kanda, a technology promotion official at the Ministry of Commerce, told AFP.

Experts like Uchimura of ITS are aware of the technology’s limitations.

“Even the simplest task for a human being can be difficult for robots to reproduce”, commented the robotics engineer.

He believes that using the robots in sparsely populated areas would initially be safer, although the companies believe that in cities they will be more commercially viable.

Taniguchi, president of ZMP, expects to see machines everywhere. “Japan loves robots,” he pointed out.

You May Also Like

Recommended for you

Immediate Peak