The Future of Delivery: Robots Riding Light Rail Transit in Japan

The Future of Delivery: Robots Riding Light Rail Transit in Japan

In a groundbreaking experiment, the Measurement and Robotics Laboratory at Utsunomiya University, led by Professor Koichi Ozaki, demonstrated the potential of using public transportation for medium-distance individual delivery systems. On June 1st, the final day of the Robotics and Mechatronics Conference 2024 in Utsunomiya (ROBOMECH 2024), two mobile robots developed by the Ozaki Laboratory embarked on a unique journey.

The Experiment: Delivering Bento Boxes and Coffee via LRT

The robots boarded the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system at JR Utsunomiya Station and traveled for 45 minutes to Kashino Mori Park in Haga Town, where a public event was being held. Their mission? To deliver bento boxes and hot coffee to the attendees.

By utilizing public transportation, the robots were able to significantly expand their range of operation. This innovative approach showcases the potential for robots to leverage existing infrastructure to enhance delivery services.

The Robots: Cutting-Edge Technology in Action

The two robots used in the experiment were developed by Utsunomiya University in collaboration with REACT Co., Ltd., a mobile robot startup spun off from the university. One robot, primarily used for research purposes, measures 828 × 605 × 948mm and weighs 80kg. The other, a more practical cart-type robot, measures 735 × 528 × 1071mm and weighs 72kg. Both robots feature a yellow and black color scheme, matching the LRT's design.

Equipped with front-wheel drive, the robots have a maximum speed of 1.4m/s and operate at 1.0m/s during autonomous navigation. They possess basic functions such as obstacle detection, emergency stop buttons, autonomous navigation, and human following capabilities, all of which adhere to the specifications set by the Tsukuba Challenge, an autonomous robot contest held in Tsukuba City, Ibaraki Prefecture.

The Journey: Navigating Stations, Buildings, and Crosswalks

The robots began their journey at the east exit of Utsunomiya Station, carrying bento boxes from "Matsumaiya," a well-known local restaurant. They navigated through the station's connecting passageway and entered the Convention Center "Light Cube Utsunomiya," the venue for ROBOMECH 2024. Using a pre-opened elevator, the robots descended to the first floor, where the LRT platform is located.

Exiting the building, the robots made their way to the platform and boarded the waiting LRT, which had been reserved for the experiment. The LRT's low-floor design, with a height of approximately 300mm, made it easily accessible for the wheeled robots. The robots utilized the wheelchair and large luggage spaces inside the train during the 45-minute journey.

Upon arriving at Kashino Mori Park Station, the second-to-last stop on the line, the robots disembarked and navigated the platform. They then crossed a pedestrian crossing after detecting the green signal and finally delivered the bento boxes and coffee to Kazuo Ozeki, the mayor of Haga Town, who was waiting in the park.

The Significance: Expanding Robot Mobility and Possibilities

This experiment highlights the significant potential for robots to utilize public transportation to expand their range of operation. By leveraging existing infrastructure, robots can serve as a new means of transportation during off-peak hours when passenger numbers are low.

Professor Koichi Ozaki expressed his relief and satisfaction with the experiment's success, noting that while there were moments when the robots seemed lost, they were able to navigate autonomously for the most part. He emphasized the importance of conducting such experiments to improve the stability and reliability of the robots.

The Utsunomiya Light Rail Line (nicknamed "Light Line") began operation on August 26, 2023, and has garnered attention as the first new tram line in Japan in 75 years. This experiment, being the first to utilize the LRT's newly introduced charter service, attracted the interest of railway enthusiasts as well.

Looking Ahead: Robots as Part of the Transportation Ecosystem

As Japan faces the challenges of an aging population and declining birthrates, the city of Utsunomiya aims to create a compact city centered around the LRT. Mayor Kazuo Ozeki of Haga Town expressed his expectations for the future of LRT-based urban development and highlighted the importance of connecting the LRT with other transportation systems.

In this context, robots have the potential to play a vital role in the transportation ecosystem. By conducting more experiments and refining the technology, researchers hope to pave the way for robots to become an integral part of public transportation and delivery services, ultimately contributing to the creation of more efficient and sustainable cities.

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