“Excuse me, I’m coming,” beeps a four-wheeled robot as it dodges pedestrians on a street outside Tokyo. It is part of an experiment with which companies hope to tackle labor shortages and isolation in rural areas.
From April, revised traffic laws will allow self-driving delivery robots to navigate the streets of Japan.
Proponents hope the machines could eventually help elderly people in depopulated rural areas access goods while also addressing a shortage of delivery drivers in a country with a chronic labor shortage.
There are challenges to overcome, admits Hisashi Taniguchi, president of Tokyo-based robotics company ZMP, including safety concerns.
“They are still newcomers to human society, so it is normal to see them with a bit of discomfort,” he told AFP.
The robots will not work entirely alone, with people monitoring and intervening remotely.
Taniguchi said it’s important for the robots to be “humble and sweet” to inspire trust.
ZMP is teaming up with behemoths like Japan Post Holdings in its trials of delivery robots in Tokyo.
The “DeliRo” robot aims for a charming appearance, with large, expressive eyes that can tear with sadness when pedestrians block his way.
“Every kid here knows his name,” he said.
– ‘How about some hot drinks?’ –
There’s serious purpose behind the cuteness.
Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, with nearly 30 percent of its residents over the age of 65. Many live in depopulated rural areas that do not have easy access to daily necessities.
A labor shortage in the cities and new rules restricting overtime for truck drivers are also making it difficult for companies to keep up with pandemic-fueled e-commerce and delivery demands.
“The labor shortage in the transportation sector will become 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 that our robots will be used to take over work where necessary and to alleviate the tightness of the labor market,” he told AFP.
Similar robots are already in use in countries like the UK and China, but there are concerns in Japan about everything from collisions to theft.
Regulations set a speed limit of six kilometers per hour (four miles per hour), meaning the “chance of serious injury in a crash is relatively small,” said Yutaka Uchimura, a robotics professor at the Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT). ).
But if a robot “goes off the sidewalk and crashes into a car because of a discrepancy between the pre-installed location data and the actual environment, it would be extremely concerning,” he said.
Panasonic says its “Hakobo” robot can autonomously judge when to turn, detect obstacles, such as construction and approaching bicycles, and stop.
One person at Fujisawa’s control center monitors four robots simultaneously via cameras and is automatically alerted when their robot payloads get stuck or are stopped by obstacles, Panasonic’s Fujikawa said.
Humans will intervene in such cases, but also in high-risk areas such as intersections. Hakobo is programmed to capture real-time images of traffic lights and send them to operators and wait for instructions.
Test runs to date have ranged from delivering medicine and food to residents of Fujisawa to selling snacks in Tokyo with disarming chit-chat 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 shop assistants may feel more reassuring, but robots allow you to shop more casually. Even if there’s nothing you think is worth buying, you can just leave without feeling guilty,” she said.
Authorities don’t believe Japan’s streets will soon be teeming with robots given pressures to protect human employment.
“We don’t expect drastic changes right away, because jobs are at stake,” Hiroki Kanda, a Commerce Ministry official who is promoting the technology, told AFP.
“The proliferation of robots will be more of a gradual process, I think.”
Experts such as SIT’s Uchimura are aware of the limitations of the technology.
“Even the simplest tasks performed by humans can be difficult for robots to match,” he said.
Uchimura believes it is safest to deploy the robots in sparsely populated rural areas first. However, companies say demand in cities will likely make urban deployment more commercially viable.
ZMP president Taniguchi eventually hopes to 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 check the safety of the elderly,” he said.
“Japan loves robots.”