On the streets of Japan, autonomous delivery robots are rapidly becoming a reality.
After a trial late last year, Rakuten’s Drone UGV department ran a successful month-long robot delivery service in the spring of 2021. In a first for Japan, the ambitious project saw a four-wheeled self-driving vehicle deliver groceries directly to the doors of customers in Yokosuka, south of Yokohama.
The project represented a huge leap forward for the dream of autonomous deliveries — a dream that Hiroyuki Ushijima, senior manager of Rakuten’s UGV Business Section, has pursued since childhood.
The career of a robot fanatic
Ushijima is the man driving Rakuten’s UGV ambitions, and he is a robot fanatic.
“I first became interested in robots in elementary school,” he recalls. “I watched the NHK Robocon (a robot competition for university students) and was completely swept away by the dream of building my own battle robot for the contest.”
Ushijima joined the robotics club in high school before entering Tokyo University, where he led the school’s team to compete in the very contest that had inspired him as an elementary student.
“Right now it’s supermarkets, but I’m eager to see robots serve pharmacies, bookstores, restaurants and other businesses too. I want them to really become part of a region’s trade infrastructure.”Hiroyuki Ushijima, Senior Manager, UGV Business Section, Rakuten
He kicked off his career at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). “I thought, ‘Instead of building robots myself, I want to help Japan’s talented robotics engineers get their creations out into the world and helping society.’”
In 2015, Ushijima was assigned to the ministry’s robot policy taskforce. “We looked at how drones and industrial robots could be used to drive new industry, and how we could build a society in which robot services could operate in closer proximity to people in everyday life.”
An appetite for hands-on work
“At METI, I was talking to all sorts of businesses about services involving robots,” he explains. “If there were regulatory hurdles standing in their way, we would negotiate with the various ministries to lower those hurdles. That’s how we supported people in the private sector.”
But soon, Ushijima found himself yearning for more hands-on work. “The more I did that job, the more I wanted not just to support robot-driven businesses, but to actually dream up and realize them myself.”
Then, opportunity struck: Ushijima heard news of Rakuten’s autonomous delivery efforts and applied to join. Today, he’s in charge of the team’s efforts on the ground as project leader of Rakuten’s autonomous robot delivery efforts, a position he’s determined to use to help solve Japan’s logistics crisis.
“Booming e-commerce services like Rakuten Ichiba are pushing demand for delivery services higher and higher, but with Japan’s aging population and low birth rate, there are fewer and fewer workers able to fulfill that demand,” he explains. “Meanwhile, in areas that are poorly served by public transport, life revolves around cars. But with age, driving becomes less and less feasible, and some are left unable to even buy groceries or daily necessities.”
This increase in so-called “shopping refugees” ― over-65s with no access to a car and no fresh food stores within 500 meters ― is an issue that will only become more serious with time. But with the unique skill set that Ushijima is bringing to the UGV table, Rakuten’s efforts could help find a solution.
Public to private: A change in perspective
Ushijima’s time at METI gave him a wealth of experience looking at the industry from a bird’s eye perspective. Now, perhaps more fittingly for him, Ushijima is working from the ground up.
“I’m on the ground, running a real service,” he exclaims. “I have a lot of opportunities to actually talk with residents and customers and hear feedback directly about how we can improve it. These services can only exist by solving the problems real users encounter. That’s not a perspective I had during my time at METI.”
Through the Yokosuka service, Ushijima was able to get closer than ever to the people whose lives he wants to improve.
“There were a lot of elderly residents living in the delivery area, and they were very happy to have heavy packages carried straight to their doorstep,” he explains. “Some people are actually hesitant to have things delivered because they don’t want to make someone else carry their heavy luggage. It was refreshing to see that they didn’t have that problem with robots.”
Ushijima’s experience in the public sector navigating government regulations and liaising with various ministries has also been crucial to his work getting Rakuten’s UGV on the road. “Thanks to that experience, I’m able to approach robot services with less of an ‘Abolish all regulations’ perspective, and more of a ‘Why do these regulations exist in the first place?’ perspective, and use that to work towards lowering the hurdles to getting these services running.”
Playing to Rakuten’s strengths
“This is something that I felt even back at METI, but Rakuten is, above all, speedy,” he reveals. “They were quick to start development on drone and robot delivery services. And they were quick to actually realize that vision and launch some of the first services. They cycle through PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) very swiftly and continue chasing new challenges and improving on the feedback they get.”
Taking initiative to push projects forward ― even as trials or limited services ― is extremely important for getting government cooperation with robotic ambitions, Ushijima reveals. “It was often the case that we were ready to relax regulations when we saw how much a company had already accomplished.”
“Some people are actually hesitant to have things delivered because they don’t want to make someone else carry their heavy luggage. It was refreshing to see that they didn’t have that problem with robots.”Hiroyuki Ushijima, Senior Manager, UGV Business Section, Rakuten
Another of Rakuten’s strengths lies in its diverse background of online and offline businesses. During the Yokosuka service, for example, the team employed Rakuten Pay’s cashless payment system to allow customers to seamlessly pay for their robot-delivered groceries.
“As new robot-driven businesses expand in the future ― e-commerce, finance, communications, marketing ― we’ll always have this expertise at our back supporting us at every turn.”
What’s next for robot deliveries?
There is plenty on Ushijima’s to-do list for after he’s solved Japan’s “shopping refugee” crisis.
“Right now it’s supermarkets, but I’m eager to see robots serve pharmacies, bookstores, restaurants and other businesses too. I want them to really become part of a region’s trade infrastructure,” he reveals. “A lot of these ideas may still just be dreams, but I’m eager to make them reality as soon as I can.”