It’s a chilly December morning in Yokosuka, south of Yokohama. Rakuten and the city of Yokosuka are collaborating on a new UGV trial: A red delivery robot, loaded with groceries, promptly takes off on four minuscule wheels and hits the open streets, expertly navigating around pedestrians, traffic and obstacles to a neighboring residential area. Finally, it comes to a stop in front of the home of a customer.
This futuristic scene was the latest in efforts from Rakuten’s drone and UGV team to push forward autonomous delivery technology. In late 2020, the team partnered with the city of Yokosuka to trial a new automated grocery delivery service from a Seiyu supermarket — another partner of Rakuten. The project employs a UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) manufactured by Panasonic that can navigate autonomously with the help of lidar and GPS.
Building on a wealth of experience
Rakuten’s efforts to push the boundaries of autonomous delivery have been making headlines since 2016, when it launched a trial service using drones to deliver goods to golfers on a private golf course outside of Tokyo. The team has since made drone deliveries to a remote island in Ehime, a private home in Shizuoka, a remote island in Tokyo Bay, a disaster-struck area in Fukushima and more. Drones are also employed to inspect Rakuten Mobile’s new cell towers.
There’s no question that navigating the open skies is a serious challenge, but with people, cars and terrain to reckon with, the chaos of ground-level navigation represents an entirely different kind of complexity for autonomous vehicles. Fortunately, Rakuten already has a few UGV notches on its belt as well, having previously trialed ground deliveries on a university campus, a seaside park and a glamping site [video].
Until recently, however, Rakuten’s UGV trials had only been conducted on private land and off public roads. This latest undertaking represents a serious step up in regulatory complexity.
“The UGV is small and slow enough to run on public roads safely,” says Hiroyuki Ushijima, Senior Manager of Rakuten’s UGV Business Section. “It’s been certified by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s Kanto District Transport Bureau. We also got road usage permission from the police.”
During the trial grocery delivery, the vehicle was monitored remotely from the Yokosuka Research Park some 5 km away, as well as directly by security personnel to ensure safety during the UGV’s first outing on public roads.
The team is focused on not just the technical and regulatory challenges of UGVs, but also their business practicality. Fortunately, designing an intuitive customer experience for such cutting-edge technology is something Ushijima and Rakuten’s drone and UGV team have had plenty of experience with.
The team is wasting no time. A full trial service is planned for the first half of 2021, through which regular supermarket shoppers from the local area can order all the robot deliveries they could ever need.
“We’re providing the shopping management system for the supermarket and the shopping app for customers. The system and the app have been developed through our past trial services of drones and UGVs.”
An autonomous 2021 for Yokosuka and beyond
Yokosuka City has been particularly proactive about trialing forward-thinking solutions to its demographic problems — namely its aging population and shrinking labor force.
“Recruiting delivery people becomes more and more difficult, especially in local communities, as the working-age population declines in Japan,” Ushijima explains. “All the while the number of parcel deliveries is rising, as the e-commerce market (including online supermarkets) continues to grow. UGVs will be a solution for that problem.”
“Through this trial, we will improve the service, its operations, the systems and the app, providing a real UGV delivery service from the supermarket to residents,” Ushijima outlines. But his ambitions don’t stop there.
“Our initial trial service in 2021 will be limited to the area near the supermarket,” he continues. “The next step will be expanding the service area. We also want to try operating multiple UGVs monitored remotely by an operator without the need for security personnel.”
A robot aficionado to lead the charge
“In five years, UGV operation costs will have come down, and we want to have developed competitive UGV delivery services,” Ushijima lays out. “In the future, UGVs will deliver not only from supermarkets but also other stores, restaurants and delivery depots.”
Ushijima is passionate about robotics and a strong proponent of autonomous technology. From 2007 to 2009, his team represented Tokyo University in the prestigious NHK Student Robot Contest.
“I used to watch the NHK robot contest on TV when I was a child, before I participated in the contest as a leader of my university’s team,” he recalls. “I’m very happy to be working to create a new business focusing on UGV delivery at Rakuten.”