Japan rolls out ‘humble and lovable’ delivery robots.

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

From April, revised traffic laws will allow self-driving delivery robots to roam the 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, acknowledges Hisashi Taniguchi, president of Tokyo-based robotics company ZMP, including safety concerns.

“They’re still newcomers to human society, so it’s only natural that they’re viewed with some unease,” he told AFP.

Robots won’t function entirely on their own, with humans monitoring remotely and being able to intervene.

Taniguchi said it was important for robots “to be humble and lovable” to inspire trust.

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

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

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

– ‘How about some hot drinks?’ –

There’s a serious purpose behind cuteness.

Japan has one of the oldest populations in the world, with nearly 30% of its citizens over the age of 65. Many live in depopulated rural areas that don’t have easy access to daily needs.

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

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

“I hope our robots are used to take over where needed and help ease the job crisis,” 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 Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT).

But if a robot “moves off the curb and collides with a car due to a discrepancy between pre-installed location data and its real environment, that would be extremely concerning,” he said.

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

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

Humans will intervene in such cases, as well as in high-risk areas such as intersections. Hakobo is programmed to capture and send live 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 selling snacks in Tokyo with disarming banter like, “Another cold day, huh? How about some hot drinks?”

– ‘A Gradual Process’ –

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

“Human shop assistants might feel more reassuring, but with robots, you can shop more casually. Even when there’s nothing you think is worth buying, you can just walk away without feeling guilty,” she said.

Authorities don’t believe Japan’s streets will be crawling with robots anytime soon, given the pressure to protect human labor.

“We don’t expect drastic changes any time soon, because there are jobs at stake,” Hiroki Kanda, a commerce ministry official promoting the technology, told AFP.

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

Experts like Uchimura of SIT 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 introducing robots into sparsely populated rural areas would be the safest course. However, the companies say demand in cities is likely to make urban deployment more commercially viable.

ZMP president Taniguchi hopes to finally see 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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