Panasonic to test public acceptance of delivery robots in Japanese ‘smart town’

17th December 2020 Sarah Wray

Panasonic is testing an autonomous delivery robot in Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, the six-year-old urban development initiative in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture.

The first phase of the trial, focused on testing a self-driving robot on public roads, began last month and will last until the end of the year. The second phase, which will start in February 2021, will see the robot provide home deliveries to residents in the area. It aims to “test the acceptability of the new delivery service experience”.

The robot will run on its own and can avoid most obstacles but it will be monitored remotely by a control centre operator, who can take over if necessary. It will travel at a speed of up to four kilometres per hour.

“By offering a new form of delivery service using robots that work closely with humans, [we aim] to contribute to creating a vibrant community where people and mobility coexist,” Panasonic said in a statement.

The company said the pandemic had accelerated the initiative as more people order food and online goods for delivery and require contactless options.

According to Panasonic: “There has been a serious shortage of home delivery staff to support such services.” This hasn’t been the case everywhere in the world, though, as in many countries, COVID-induced unemployment has seen heavy competition for delivery work. It’s early days but there are also broader concerns that autonomous robots could eventually start to eat into human jobs.

In Japan, testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads, including delivery robots, requires a permit from local police.

National strategy

The trials are based on Japan’s growth strategy action plan, published in July 2020, which called for robot delivery pilots to inform policymaking for wider roll-out.

Panasonic is taking part in a public-private council for the promotion of deliveries by autonomous robots which is sponsored by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Part of the company’s R&D and field test activities are also being supported by a government technology development project to accelerate the deployment of autonomous delivery technologies.

In October, Japan Post Co. started public road trials of self-driving delivery robots in Tokyo.

Elsewhere, Starship Technologies is running robot deliveries with the Co-op supermarket in two UK cities, with plans to expand the service next year. In July, Amazon announced trials of its electric, autonomous Scout package delivery robots in Atlanta, Georgia and Franklin, Tennessee, adding to services in Snohomish County, Washington and Irvine, California.

San Francisco, which was a frontrunner for the deployment of robot deliveries, passed regulations in 2017 to govern the use of delivery robots after complaints from some residents. The city has since established an Office of Emerging Technology to engage earlier with companies that want to deploy potentially disruptive new systems and products.

In other robot uses during the pandemic, Singapore piloted a four-legged, dog-like robot called Spot to promote social distancing in parks, and Seoul is using small humanoid robots to deliver digital skills training to senior citizens.

Smart town

Panasonic has been working in Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town since it opened in 2014. The development, which is home to over 2,000 people, is located on the site of a former Panasonic factory in Fujisawa. It brings together 18 public and private organisations, including Panasonic and Fujisawa City. The community aims to serve as a model for citizen-centric sustainable development and how technology can address urban challenges related to energy, security, mobility and health.

 

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