Japan rolls out ‘humble and lovable’ delivery robots

Japan rolls out ‘humble and lovable’ delivery robots

TOKYO, Feb 12 — “Excuse me, come through,” chirped a four-wheeled robot as it dodged pedestrians on a street outside Tokyo, part of an experiment that businesses hope will tackle labor shortages and rural isolation.

Starting in April, revised traffic laws will allow self-driving delivery robots to navigate streets across Japan.



Proponents hope the machines could eventually help elderly people in depopulated rural areas access goods, while also addressing a shortage of delivery workers in a country with chronic labor shortages.

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

“They are still newcomers to human society, so it is natural that they are seen with some discomfort,” he told AFP.

The robots won’t work completely alone, with humans remotely monitoring and able to intervene.

Taniguchi said it was important for the robots to be “humble and loving” to instill trust.

ZMP has partnered with giants such as Japan Post Holdings in its trials of delivery robots in Tokyo.

His “DeliRo” robot aims for a charming appearance, with large, expressive eyes that can tear up with sadness if pedestrians block its path.

“Every kid around here knows his name,” he said.

“How about some hot drinks?”

There is a serious purpose behind the cuteness.

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

Labor shortages in its cities and new rules limiting overtime for truck drivers are also making it difficult for businesses to keep up with pandemic-fueled e-commerce and delivery demands.

“The shortage of workers in transportation 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 over where needed and help alleviate the labor crisis,” he told AFP.

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

Regulations set a maximum speed of six kilometers per hour, which means the “chance of serious injury in the event of a collision is relatively small”, says Yutaka Uchimura, a robotics engineering professor at Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT).

But if a robot “moves off the pavement and collides with a car because of a 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 and stop obstacles, such as construction and approaching bicycles.

One person at the Fujisawa control center monitors four robots simultaneously via cameras and is automatically alerted when their robotic payloads get stuck or are stopped by obstacles, Panasonic’s Fujikawa said.

People will intervene in such cases, as well as in high-risk areas such as junctions. Hakobo is programmed to record and send real-time images of traffic lights to operators and wait for instructions.

Test runs so far have ranged from delivering medicine and food to Fujisawa residents to snacks in Tokyo with disarming lines like, “Another cold day, isn’t it? How about some hot drinks?”

A gradual process

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

“Human store clerks may feel more reassuring, but with robots you can shop more comfortably. Even when there is nothing you feel is worth buying, you can just leave without feeling guilty,” she said.

Authorities do not believe Japanese streets will soon be teeming with robots, given the pressure to protect human jobs.

“We don’t expect drastic change immediately because there is work at stake,” Hiroki Kanda, a trade ministry official promoting the technology, told AFP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Japan loves robots.” — ETX Studio

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