Japan launches ‘humble and adorable’ delivery robots

“Excuse me, I’m coming through,” a four-wheeled robot chirps as it dodges pedestrians on a street outside Tokyo, as part of an experiment companies hope will tackle labor shortages and rural isolation.

Starting in April, revised traffic laws will allow autonomous delivery robots to navigate the streets of Japan.

Advocates hope the machines could eventually help older people in unpopulated rural areas gain access to goods, while also addressing a shortage of delivery drivers in a country with chronic labor shortages.

There are challenges to overcome, acknowledges Hisashi Taniguchi, president of Tokyo-based robotics firm ZMP, including security concerns.

“They are still newcomers to human society, so it’s only natural that they would be seen with a bit of discomfort,” he told AFP.

The robots will not operate entirely on their own, with humans remotely monitoring and able to intervene.

Taniguchi said it’s important for robots “to be humble and lovable” to inspire confidence.

ZMP has partnered with giants like Japan Post Holdings on its delivery robot tests in Tokyo.

Your robot “DeliRo” aims for a charming appearance, with large expressive eyes that can make you cry with sadness if pedestrians block your path.

“All the kids around here know his name,” he said.

– ‘How about some hot drinks?’ –

There is a serious purpose behind the cuteness.

Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, with almost 30 percent of its citizens over the age of 65. Many live in unpopulated rural areas that lack easy access to daily necessities.

Labor shortages in their cities and new rules limiting truckers’ overtime are also making it difficult for businesses to keep up with the pandemic-driven e-commerce and delivery demands.

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

“I hope our robots will be used to take control where needed and help alleviate labor shortages,” he told AFP.

Similar robots are already in use in countries like the UK and China, but in Japan there are concerns about everything from collisions to theft.

The regulations set a maximum speed of six kilometers per hour (four miles per hour), meaning “the chances of serious injury in a collision are relatively small,” said Yutaka Uchimura, a professor of robotics engineering at the Institute of Technology. of Shibaura (SIT). ).

But if a robot “runs off the sidewalk and collides with a car due to some discrepancy between the pre-installed location data and the real environment, that would be extremely worrying,” he said.

Panasonic says its “Hakobo” robot can autonomously judge when to turn, as well as detect obstacles, such as oncoming buildings and bicycles, and stop.

A person at Fujisawa’s control center simultaneously monitors four robots via cameras and receives automatic alerts whenever their robotic payloads get stuck or stopped by obstacles, Panasonic’s Fujikawa said.

Humans will intervene in such cases, as well as in high-risk areas such as crossings. Hakobo is programmed to capture and send real-time images of traffic lights to operators and await instructions.

So far, the tests have ranged from delivering medicine and food to Fujisawa residents to peddling snacks in Tokyo with a captivating tone like: “Another cold day, huh? How about some hot drinks?”

– ‘A gradual process’ –

“I think it’s a great idea,” said passerby Naoko Kamimura after buying Hakobo cough drops on a Tokyo street.

“Human store clerks may feel more at ease, but with robots, you can shop more casually. Even when there’s nothing you think is worth buying, you can leave without feeling guilty,” he said.

Officials don’t think Japan’s streets will soon be swarming with robots, given the pressure to protect human employment.

“We don’t expect a drastic change right away, because there are jobs at stake,” Hiroki Kanda, a commerce ministry official who promotes the technology, told AFP.

“I think the spread of robots will be more of a gradual process.”

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

“Even the simplest tasks performed by humans can be difficult for robots to emulate,” he said.

Uchimura believes that deploying the robots to sparsely populated rural areas first would be the safest. However, the companies say demand in cities is likely to make urban deployment more commercially viable.

ZMP president Taniguchi hopes to eventually see the machines running everywhere.

“I think it would make people happy if, with better communication technology, these delivery robots could patrol a neighborhood or check on the safety of the elderly,” he said.

“Japan loves robots.”


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