Pandemic accelerating move to automated delivery services in Japan

Japan is paving the way for autonomous delivery robots to become part of everyday life, with social distancing efforts required during the coronavirus pandemic making 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, in the not so distant future, deliver a range of products from nearby warehouses or shops to consumers.

In August, an autonomous delivery robot developed by ZMP Inc., dubbed the DeliRo, will deliver Japanese soba noodle dishes to customers in a trial in Tokyo.

Customers can place orders via tablet device during the event from Aug. 12 to 16 near JR Takanawa Gateway Station, make a cashless payment and have their food delivered by the 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, measuring about 1 meter in height with a load capacity of 50 kilograms, is capable of detecting and avoiding obstacles blocking its way using advanced autonomous driving tech. It travels at a maximum speed of 6 kilometers per hour.

The Japanese government is stepping up its push for autonomous delivery services in the hope they will alleviate the acute shortage of labor in the rapidly aging country.

One outstanding issue, however, is to decide how to treat low-speed, self-driving vehicles that travel below 6 km per hour because the existing legal framework in Japan does not cover them, an impediment to conducting test runs on public roads.

An expert panel under the National Police Agency has begun discussions on how traffic rules should apply to the 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 of a delivery service using an autonomous vehicle on a public road by the end of 2020.