Business / Tech

ZMP's food delivery robot ready to pick up the slack in graying Japan

ZMT, Amazon, FedEx testing machines to automate retail transport tasks

by Sayo Sasaki

Kyodo

Mix the rise of e-commerce in Japan with a chronic labor shortage and a graying society and what do you get?

An autonomous home delivery robot with a cartoon character voice and big inquisitive eyes.

“I’m delivering delicious food,” announced CarriRo Deli, a robot the size of a cooler box that was navigating a South Korean apartment complex in April, bringing food and drinks to residents during a trial of its “last-mile” delivery service.

The robot’s maker, Tokyo-based ZMP Inc., has already held a number of delivery trials at university campuses and elsewhere in Japan and is looking for partners to help it develop the business further.

Aside from having a 50 kg cargo capacity and a speed of 6 kph, the robot speaks short phrases like “hello” and “thank you” and has LED eyes, a feature aimed at making it more lifelike and engaging when interacting with people.

“It would be scary if a simple box was running around places,” ZMP Manager Hiromasa Iwano explained at a gathering in Tokyo in late July, adding the company took into account how people would react to the robots.

“We wanted to create a robot that is well-received, socially.”

ZMP CEO Hisashi Taniguchi said at the same event that CarriRo Deli was the world’s only autonomous delivery robot with eyes when it was revealed last year, noting that although eyes had long been a feature industrial designers avoided, others are now following suit.

CarriRo Deli, 109 cm high, 96 cm long and 66 cm wide, is powered by batteries and uses sensors in conjunction with an electronic reference map to get around.

It comes in four colors — red, yellow, blue and silver — and each has a different voice.

The robot is nearly fully autonomous, ZMP says, noting the trials showed it requires human intervention when it comes across irregularities, such as a truck in the way, or a crosswalk without painted lines.

The development of delivery robots is coming at a time when Japan is facing severe labor shortages from its low birthrate and rapidly graying population as the global e-commerce trend continues to grow.

Deliveries hit 4.25 billion in fiscal 2017, which is up 5.8 percent from the previous year and the third annual increase in a row, according to transport ministry data .

In contrast, Japan’s population dwindled to 124.8 million on Jan. 1, bringing the ratio working-age people aged 15 to 64 down 0.28 point to 59.49 percent of the total for 2018, according to the internal affairs ministry.

The manufacturing and service industries are hiring more foreign workers to offset the shortage but are also streamlining and terminating some services.

Logistics company Sagawa Express Co., for example, ended Amazon deliveries altogether in 2013. Another major delivery firm, Yamato Transport Co., recently raised fees so it could hire more staff.

ZMP’s Taniguchi, however, said the services the robots provide “should not be too convenient,” saying this could discourage people from going out and interacting with others — a real and worsening problem as rural parts of Japan continue to depopulate.

Other robot makers in Japan are looking to deploy their own last-mile delivery systems to accommodate this shift.

Online shopping mall Rakuten Inc. and Chinese counterpart JD.com Inc. have agreed to introduce an Unmanned Ground Vehicle in Japan that is already in use in parts of China.

Last year, a company called Hakobot was founded with the aim of developing an autonomous delivery robot to take some of the workload off humans, particularly in rural areas where there are fewer people but many who are nearing old age.

The trend is taking hold overseas as well.

In Britain, U.S.-based Starship Technologies is providing an unlimited delivery service using autonomous robots in Milton Keynes for £7.99 ($10, ¥1,062) a month.

At the beginning of the year, Starship kicked off food delivery at two universities in the United States and now has plans to expand the service to 100 more college campuses with another fleet of robots.

Amazon.com Inc. is meanwhile testing a delivery robot dubbed “Scout” in Snohomish County, Washington, while FedEx Corp. has launched the FedEx SameDay Bot, dubbed “Roxo,” to help retailers make same-day and last-mile parcel deliveries.

FedEx’s robot can climb stairs, carry up to about 45 kg and travel as fast as 16 kph. Since more than 60 percent of its customers live within 5 km of a store they use, the robot would assume the role of delivering goods the same day, according to the company.

But legal restrictions hinder Japan’s robot makers from pursuing the same path. They can’t deploy autonomous robots on public roads because the traffic laws do not cover such technologies.

The government plans to open up public roads for trials of unmanned delivery robots before fiscal 2019 ends in April 2020. But as new rules and safety measures must be introduced, the entities involved have jointly set up an association to discuss requirements.

“Technologically speaking, we are ready to go on public roads by 2020 if conditions, including legislation, allow us to,” said a ZMP official.

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