In Japan and China, robots could soon deliver food to your doorstep

Key Points
  • Companies in Japan and China have begun trials for indoor food delivery robots.
  • Meituan, China's biggest food delivery company, is trialing its unmanned robots in offices and hotels in Beijing and Shenzhen, a company official said in August.
  • In Japan, robot company ZMP has developed and tested a food delivery robot in universities and apartment complexes.
  • However, it will be a "long time" before human deliverymen are displaced from their jobs, said one expert.  
A driverless delivery vehicle by Meituan is seen during the Global Future Mobility Conference in China on September 20, 2018.
STR | AFP | Getty Images

Robots could be the future of food delivery in Asia.

Companies in Japan and China have begun trials for indoor food delivery robots.

China's biggest food delivery company, Meituan Dianping, is testing its unmanned robots in about 10 offices and hotels in large Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen, said the company's head of autonomous delivery unit, Xia Huaxia, at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in China on Aug. 29.

Japan was the world's top producer of industrial robots in 2017.

Tokyo-based robot maker ZMP has developed and tested a food delivery robot in universities and apartment complexes. These machines can navigate environments like office buildings, apartments and universities to independently bring food to customers via lift or stairs.

"There are good reasons that university campuses, office blocks, hotels and hospitals are amongst the first environments to roll out robots in food delivery," James Lambert, director of economic consulting for Asia at Oxford Economics, told CNBC in an email.

"These are fixed and predictable environments, within which the robots are tasked with routine functions," Lambert said.

Saving time, overcoming labor shortages

For instance, Meituan's robot can move through a multi-story building and deliver orders to the customer's doorstep, though a human deliveryman is still needed to bring the food to the building, Xia said, according to CNBC's translation of his remarks in Chinese.

He said this will save approximately five to seven minutes per delivery — that's about one to two Chinese yuan ($0.14-$0.28) each trip. The company's robots have already delivered thousands of orders, added Xia.

The eyes of ZMP's robot, named CarriRo Deli, "can express rich expressions and communicate with people by voice," the company's manager, Hiromasa Iwano, told CNBC in an email.

These innovations in robotics are meant to tackle labor shortages and reduce delivery time. That's especially important in Japan, which is facing a shrinking workforce as the country grapples with declining birth rates and an aging population.

According to a February 2019 prediction by Japanese authorities, the country's workforce could shrink up to 20% by 2040.

CarriRo delivery robots were developed with the intention of solving last mile logistics.

Japan and China aren't the first to jump on the food delivery robot trend.

In the United States, self-driving robots are already delivering food to university students on demand.

But operating food delivery robots in China could have some upsides, said Oxford Economics Managing Editor, Michael Zielenziger.

"Meituan's service may be particularly well-suited for specific Chinese environments, where often offices and dormitories are in close proximity to one another, and apartment blocs are denser than in, say the United States," Zielenziger told CNBC in an email.

Still, it'll take between two to five years before Meituan's food delivery robots are used in the mass market, said Xia.

Possible cost issues

Food delivery robots may be one way of helping companies cut costs, but it also depends on a few other factors.

The cost of developing the robot, remote monitoring, communications, security, and possibly insurance, need to be factored in when companies assess the benefits, Jing Bing Zhang, research director at IDC Worldwide Robotics, told CNBC.

A Meituan delivery rider negotiates an intersection as he delivers food in Beijing, China, on June 26, 2018.
Greg Baker | AFP | Getty Images

But manpower-wise, it will be a "long time" before human deliverymen are displaced from their jobs, said Lambert of Oxford Economics. "Human workers will continue to interact and collaborate with robots," he added.

That's echoed by Xia from Meituan, who said that by 2025, the company's food delivery business is predicted to increase by three times. While robots can deliver half of those additional orders, there's still a need for more human employees, he added.

Hence, the number of human deliverymen may have to increase by 150%, from its current 60,000 to 70,000 fleet.

Privacy concerns

Food delivery robots store large amounts of sensitive data, such as maps of building interiors, in order to help them navigate places. They could also be equipped with lasers or computer vision.

"They may also collect data along the way, about the building, about the campus. So that will be a concern … whether that will become part of the dispute or not is still a question," said Zhang.

However, whether customers will be unhappy about this could vary across societies.

"In the PRC (People's Republic of China), for example, where facial recognition technologies and 'social credit' scores are already being rolled out and used, sometimes aggressively, very few Chinese, we suspect, have reasonable expectations about being able to maintain 'privacy' as they might in, say the US," said Lambert.

"They might well accept the convenience and theoretically lower prices for robot food delivery services," he added.