Business / Tech

Japanese delivery robots closer to hitting the roads as pandemic puts damper on human contact

Kyodo

Japan is paving the way for autonomous delivery robots to become part of everyday life as the social distancing drive for the coronavirus pandemic makes the push all the more vital.

The coronavirus crisis has increased the appeal of services that allow for reduced human contact and Japanese firms are counting on the potential of robots that can deliver a range of products from nearby warehouses or shops to consumers.

In August, an autonomous delivery robot by ZMP Inc. dubbed DeliRo will deliver soba dishes to customers for a trial run in Tokyo.

Customers can place orders via tablet computers during the trial from Aug. 12 to 16 near JR Takanawa Gateway Station, make a cashless payment and have their food delivered by robot within a designated area.

“We want to explore what kinds of autonomous delivery services are possible and what the DeliRo can offer at a time when new lifestyles are called for amid the coronavirus outbreak,” a ZMP official said.

The DeliRo, which is about a meter high and has a maximum speed of 6 kph, can carry a payload of 50 kg and avoid obstacles in its path via advanced autonomous driving technology.

The government is stepping up its push for autonomous delivery services in the hope they will alleviate the acute shortage of labor being caused by the rapidly graying population and low birth rate.

One outstanding issue, however, is how to regulate self-driving vehicles that run below 6 kph because the existing legal framework does not cover them, creating an impediment to conducting tests on public roads.

A panel under the National Police Agency has begun discussions on how traffic rules should apply to delivery robots and the government aims to allow trials on public roads this year, as long as they can be monitored remotely.

E-commerce giant Rakuten Inc. has said it plans to carry out a demonstration delivery service using an autonomous vehicle on a public road by the end of the year.

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