The Japanese government is set to green-light robot delivery services using public roads, with the aim of starting operations in 2021.
This was revealed at the technology event ZMP World 2020 held in Tokyo on August 18.
In May this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized at a meeting of Council on Investments for the Future, “Remotely monitored and remotely controlled delivery robots that are small and low-speed will be tested on public roads later this year.”
A senior official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry added that the government “wants operators to start running services in fiscal 2021,” taking into account the need to speed up COVID-19 countermeasures.
The government expects to complete its basic policy and necessary legislation on the futuristic services by the spring of 2021.
Why and How?
Demand for delivery services without humans has increased due to COVID-19. As the United States and China have introduced such services, the Japanese government has decided to shift gears and make the concept a reality in Japan too.
Labor shortages in Japan have also led to the idea of automated robot delivery services being taken seriously. Japan’s economy would certainly benefit if the delivery industry is boosted by the use of robots.
Under approved demonstration projects, some robots will be monitored remotely using computers, while other robots will be accompanied by humans to ensure safety. For those with human companions, the National Police Agency has clarified the necessary procedures for gaining permission to use the roads. Regarding the remotely monitored robots, the government has said it will set up a system that would enable operators to obtain permits.
Remotely-monitored robots will be tested for the first time in wintertime experiments. The participating firms are yet to be decided, but the government’s public-private council for these services has named candidates, such as Japan Post, Yamato Transport, Rakuten, SoftBank, Panasonic, Honda, and the automated-driving venture firm ZMP, based in Tokyo.
The Technology is Already Here
Many Japanese companies recognize that non-contact delivery services are in demand, and are trying to develop solutions. However, whether society will be willing to accept new ideas — and hence enable their broader use — is a different matter.
At the ZMP event in Tokyo on August 18, the company announced its plans for testing a robot delivery service on public roads. The firm will also start testing robots in deliveries to high-rise apartments in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward this fall, accompanied by humans in order to ensure safety.
“We want to make robot models that are profitable,” said ZMP CEO Hisashi Taniguchi, who is keen to provide robot delivery services as early as possible.
ZMP’s four-wheeled “DeliRo” robot, which is already on the market, is safe because it uses the same sensors as self-driving cars, and is capable of following roads and detecting obstacles by reading 3D map data. It can also carry up to 50 kilograms and be unlocked with a smartphone.
Meanwhile, from August 2020, Rakuten is offering unmanned deliveries of barbecue ingredients at a resort in Nagano Prefecture for a limited period. Rakuten is using a 1.6-meter-high, four-wheeled robot provided by the Chinese online retail giant JD.com for this service.
In addition, Starship Technologies — which was established by the co-founders of the telecommunications application Skype — has expanded from delivering food in the London area with its self-made six-wheeled robots in 2018 to delivering in at least 100 cities across the world.
Amazon and FedEx are also embarking on similar robot delivery experiments.
Starship Technologies has attracted investment from Japanese companies, such as Recruit and TDK. Similarly, the SoftBank Group has invested about ¥100 billion JPY in the U.S. startup Nuro.
Raising Awareness is Key
Investment is rife. However, as Japan faces wider use of these delivery robots across the country, it is important to ensure safety.
“The Japanese people need to understand that [delivery robots] will be using roads and sidewalks,” explained National Public Safety Commission Chairman Ryota Takeda. If robots suddenly start appearing everywhere while awareness is low, there will probably be some problems on the roads.
Notably, ZMP’s “DeliRo” is designed to reassure those around it with its large eyes and informative sounds.
“Ideally, robots will be on the public roads, and society will accept their presence,” said one corporate participant in a recent public-private council meeting.
A number of local government representatives also attended the August 18 event. Returning to their respective regions and conducting tests with the delivery robots will be an effective way of raising awareness about these futuristic services that will be everywhere soon.
Authors: Kanji Takahashi and Yoshitake Imamura, Staff Writers, The Sankei Shimbun Economics division