Electronics giant Panasonic announced today that it has started testing autonomous delivery robots on public roads in the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town in Japan. Initial tests started in November; the company aims to begin home delivery tests in February of 2021.
Panasonic said the this first phase will include the home delivery of “packages and products using a smartphone app.” While food wasn’t specifically mentioned in the press release, the company pointed out the growth of food delivery and lack of labor to carry out those deliveries. Additionally, Panasonic talked about the growing need for contactless delivery options, thanks to the pandemic.
Panasonic got permission from Fujisawa City authorities to begin its self-driving tests. The autonomous robots will be connected via a public network, and a human operator will monitor the robots from a control center and take over driving should the need arise.
The city of Fujisawa itself sounds interesting. From Panasonic’s press announcement:
Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is an urban development project located on the former site of Panasonic’s factory in Fujisawa City, Kanagawa Prefecture, with the participation of 18 groups including Panasonic and Fujisawa City. As a real smart town where more than 2,000 people live, it is working on sustainable urban development while also aiming to solve issues facing society and the community through the implementation of mechanisms jointly designed by the companies, local governments, and residents involved with the town, and through the creation of new services.
Panasonic’s delivery robot move is part of a broader trend, as we see cities from around the world begin rolling out delivery robots on public streets. In Russia, Yandex robots are making restaurant deliveries in Moscow. The Postmates Serve robot is making deliveries from the Pink Dot market in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. And Woowa Brothers delivery robots have started making food deliveries in Seoul, South Korea.
We’ve seen an increase in robot activity since the pandemic forced restaurants, grocery and delivery services to establish contactless delivery options. Robots can remove at least one form of human-to-human interaction when getting your food. But robots have other advantages as well, such as the ability to work around the clock and potentially bring down the cost of delivery, making it more affordable to more people.
But as Panasonic’s announcement shows, there are still legal and technical hurdles that need to be overcome. Even in the smart town it helped form, Panasonic still needs to get permits and run tests before it can dive right in to dropping by someone’s front door.