Risks and Rewards: Japan’s Launch of Adorable Delivery Robots Raises Concerns Amidst Growing Popularity Worldwide
Japan is gearing up to deploy a fleet of four-wheeled robots designed to deliver goods, such as food and medicine, to depopulated rural areas and address the country’s chronic labor shortage. With a rapidly aging population, the Japanese government is seeking solutions to ensure access to necessities in regions where transportation options are limited. Delivery robots are seen as a potential solution to this problem, but there are challenges and concerns that must be addressed to ensure their safe and effective operation.
Safety Concerns and Regulations
One of the main challenges of deploying delivery robots is ensuring their safe operation on public streets. To address this concern, the Japanese government has revised traffic laws to allow self-driving delivery robots to navigate streets across the country starting in April 2022. However, regulations limit their maximum speed to six kilometers per hour (four miles per hour) to minimize the risk of injury in the event of a collision.
Yutaka Uchimura, a robotic engineering professor at Shibaura Institute of Technology, notes that there are still concerns about potential collisions with other vehicles if the robots move off the sidewalk and encounter a discrepancy between pre-installed location data and the actual environment. To mitigate this risk, delivery robots are equipped with sensors that enable them to detect obstacles, such as construction and approaching bicycles, and stop autonomously.
Human Monitoring and Intervention
While the robots are designed to operate autonomously, human monitoring and intervention are necessary to ensure their safe and effective operation. Delivery robots will be monitored remotely, and humans will be able to intervene if necessary, especially in high-risk areas such as junctions. For instance, Panasonic’s “Hakobo” robot can capture and send real-time images of traffic lights to operators and await instructions. In addition, Panasonic has one person at its Fujisawa control center who simultaneously monitors four robots via cameras and is automatically alerted whenever the robots encounter obstacles.
Addressing Labor Shortages and Rural Isolation
Labor shortages in Japan’s cities and new rules limiting overtime for truck drivers have made it challenging for businesses to keep up with e-commerce and delivery demands, especially during the pandemic. Delivery robots are seen as a potential solution to this problem, with businesses hoping to use them to take over where needed and help ease the labor crunch.
The robots are also seen as a potential solution to address the country’s rural isolation, which affects many elderly people living in depopulated rural areas that lack easy access to daily necessities. In this regard, Hisashi Taniguchi, president of Tokyo-based robotics firm ZMP, believes that the robots’ appearance is essential in inspiring confidence and acceptance. Taniguchi says that it’s important that the robots “are humble and lovable,” and ZMP’s “DeliRo” robot aims for a charming look, featuring big, expressive eyes that can be made teary in sadness if pedestrians block its way.
Japan’s love for robots is well-known, and the country has been at the forefront of developing and deploying robots in various fields, from manufacturing to hospitality. Delivery robots are seen as a potentially transformative technology that can address critical challenges, including labor shortages and rural isolation. However, the technology is still in its early stages, and there are significant challenges and concerns that must be addressed, including safety, security, and public acceptance. Nonetheless, with a gradual rollout process that prioritizes safety and efficiency, delivery robots could soon become a common sight on Japan’s streets.
Japan has a well-known affinity for robots, with the country’s history and culture contributing to a deep appreciation for the role of technology in society.
As Japan rolls out its delivery robots, it’s important to keep an eye on the development and implementation of this technology. We should continue to support advancements in robotics while also considering the impact on society, including potential job displacement and safety concerns. Let’s stay informed and engaged in discussions about the use of robots in our daily lives.