Autonomous delivery robots hit Japanese streets

A robot knocks on your door to deliver a freshly brewed cup of coffee, which you ordered just minutes earlier with one tap on your smartphone. This vision of the future could soon turn into reality as Japanese companies have started testing autonomous delivery robots on public streets. This comes as the need for social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic has pushed up demand for autonomous delivery services.

Japan Post began testing a self-driving mail delivery robot on the streets of Tokyo last September. The prototype can carry packages weighing up to 30 kilograms, and travel at a speed of 6 kilometers per hour, slightly faster than walking pace. Built-in cameras and sensors enable the robot to wait at red lights and avoid pedestrians and cars. The ongoing trials aim to determine if the robot can be safely operated using a remote monitoring system.

Japan Post self-driving mail delivery robot

Electronics giant Panasonic has also joined the self-delivery race and is tapping into its immense resources to get a leg up. The company is currently testing a robot on the streets of its Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town facility located outside of Tokyo. The robot is designed to be able to make several stops, picking up and delivering groceries at a number of stores and homes on a particular route. Panasonic says it also hopes to use big data to make the robot responsive to individual customer needs.

Panasonic self-driving robot

E-Commerce giant Rakuten started running trials of a delivery robot in Yokosuka City, Kanagawa Prefecture last month. The city is struggling with an aging population and hopes Rakuten's robots can help residents who have trouble traveling on its winding roads and steep slopes.

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The Japanese government is completely on board with these efforts. Officials are currently in talks to ease regulations on self-delivery robots, which are prohibited from running on public roads without close human monitoring.

But experts say there are still two major challenges that need to be overcome before such robots become a common sight on the streets of Japan. One is traffic safety. While the robots are equipped with a range of safety mechanisms, including emergency sensors that contact remote monitoring centers, regulators are being extremely cautious in approving their use.

The second hurdle is cost. The level of testing currently required demands one-on-one monitoring by human staff. The price of such a comprehensive trial procedure can be prohibitive.

But if they can overcome these challenges, companies like Panasonic and Rakuten can look forward to a self-delivery market that experts say will surge in the next few years. Services similar to the ones they are developing have been given the green light in parts of Europe and the US. And in China, self-driving robots can already be seen on the streets of Shenzhen.

The Japanese government hopes to ramp up competition in the field in the new year. It intends to make efforts on the legislative front, either in the form of an amendment or a new law, to encourage more companies to get involved. Regardless of what happens with the pandemic, 2021 looks on track to be the year of the self-driving robot.