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Business trends

Delivery robot trials set to start in Tokyo next month

Yamato and Japan Post will test the technology first in bid to contain COVID

It is hoped the robots will help contain the spread of the coronavirus while alleviating the shortage of delivery drivers.

TOKYO -- Yamato Holdings and Japan Post will begin testing delivery robots on streets in Tokyo next month in a move aimed at promoting unmanned delivery technology, which has already taken off in the U.S. and China.

A delivery system that does not involve face-to-face contact has been called for to reduce the risk of coronavirus infections. Autonomous delivery technology is also expected to help logistics companies deal with worker shortages, which are intensifying amid a surge in online shopping.

Autonomous delivery is already being developed in the U.S. and China, but in Japan these services have been hamstrung by regulatory roadblocks. The government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to change the rules as soon as possible after trials.

As of 2019, there were 870,000 delivery drivers in Japan.

Yamato's trial will be held in eastern Tokyo, while that for Japan Post will take place in the central part of the city. The trials will entail a small robot about the size of a wheelchair driving on public roads to make deliveries. About five robots will be tested in each location.

Robot deliveries by Japanese online retailer Rakuten are already being made in parts of Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. Rakuten is also looking to use its robots on public roads.

Delivery robots are expected to be regarded as motorized vehicles and will carry license plates. They will operate within a 1- to 2-km radius, ferrying parcels to convenience stores, hospitals, apartment blocks and other destinations.

The trial is expected to continue through the end of the year and be joined by convenience store operators and gas stations.

Under Japanese law, unmanned delivery robots are currently not allowed to operate on public roads.

Abe's government is in discussions with the private sector about the rule changes, and money has been budgeted for the rollout. The trials are designed to identify regulations that need to be relaxed.

Both the U.S. and China already offer commercially available robot deliveries, while the U.S. allows robots to operate on public roads in some states.

Some Chinese cities are also looking at allowing robots to drive on public roads to deliver supplies to hospitals.

In Germany, autonomous robots deliver mail.

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