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Delivery robot turns heads at Chiba University

Three years have passed since Rakuten launched its first drone delivery service on a golf course in Chiba Prefecture. Rakuten’s drone services have since undergone numerous iterations and trials. But so far, the sky has (literally) been the limit.

Not anymore: In May 2019, the Rakuten Drone UGV team trialed an innovative new automated delivery service, this time using an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) — essentially, a delivery robot.

Autonomous meals on wheels for Chiba students

The trial was conducted on the expansive grounds of Chiba University, just east of Tokyo. The UGV in question operates on four wheels and is about the size of a pony — featuring a front screen decorated with large, round “eyes” that give it an almost anthropomorphic cuteness.

The robot was able to sense and avoid pedestrians on the bustling university campus.
The robot was able to sense and avoid pedestrians on the bustling university campus.

It’s more than just a pretty face, however. An array of cameras and sensors allow the robot to autonomously navigate the busy crowds — something it accomplishes with ease.

In the trial, university students were asked to install an app developed by the Rakuten Drone UGV team used to purchase a selection of snacks and stationery from the university shop. Once an order was placed, staff loaded the products into the robot, which then calculated the most efficient route to the student’s location and set off on its journey.

Students ordered products through an app developed by the Rakuten Drone UGV team.
Students ordered products through an app developed by the Rakuten Drone UGV team.

Students received a push notification as the robot approached. On arrival, they needed only to enter a code on the robot’s large touchscreen to unlock the compartment with the ordered product waiting inside. After the delivery was complete, the robot autonomously returned to the shop.

A ground-breaking new first for Rakuten

“Making a ground delivery outdoors with a UGV to an actual customer is a first for Rakuten,” said Rakuten Drone UGV General Manager Hideaki Mukai. “We programmed a map of the area into the robot, which it used to calculate the most efficient delivery route. We also tested to ensure that the robot could make multiple deliveries on a single round with the smoothest possible operation.”

Ground deliveries are a first for Rakuten, said Rakuten Drone UGV General Manager Hideaki Mukai.
Ground deliveries by UGV are a first for Rakuten, said Rakuten Drone UGV General Manager Hideaki Mukai.

The trial examined not only the robot’s ability to navigate a campus full of moving bicycles and pedestrians, but also how real-life customers reacted to a driverless delivery vehicle making rounds on university grounds.

While the robot did attract a few double-takes, students were overwhelmingly accepting of the new addition to their campus. “I was a bit bewildered at first, but it’s easy once you get the hang of it,” one participant remarked. “I thought it would be more robotic, but its design and the sounds it made felt quite friendly,” said another, likening the vehicle to an approachable robot vacuum cleaner.

Students entered a code on the robot’s touchscreen to pick up their order from one of its delivery compartments.
Students entered a code on the robot’s touchscreen to pick up their order from one of its delivery compartments.

Cutting-edge tech could solve Japan’s delivery crisis

Alongside its aerial services, the trial was another step in Rakuten Drone UGV’s efforts to lighten the load on Japan’s overstretched logistics infrastructure, which is suffering from labor shortages in a booming e-commerce industry. Mukai and the Rakuten Drone UGV team are focusing on the “last mile” — the part of the logistics chain where the product is delivered to the end costumer — to help make deliveries possible to people in remote areas and even uninhabited islands.

“Our journey towards autonomous delivery solutions has only just begun,” Mukai declared. “Currently, there is no framework of rules for robots operating in public spaces, which is why we trialed it here on the university campus. We want to continue conducting trials like this on private property to pave the way for a full legal framework for robot deliveries.”

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