Mitsubishi Electric, the automaker’s electronics equipment manufacturing company, is starting a pilot program to explore the value of autonomous robots. The company will be working with Cartken, the Google alum startup that came out of stealth last March, to unleash a small number of Cartken’s delivery robots in a Japanese mall to provide indoor and curb-side food delivery services, initially for Starbucks customers.
Customers will be able to use their Starbucks app to select robotic delivery for their order, and a Cartken robot will meet the customer at one of the delivery points inside or outside the mall, according to Mitsubishi. The pilot, which will take place at Aeon Mall Tokoname starting this month, will run through April 2022 with plans to scale to a porter service that resembles curbside pickup for other shoppers, according to Anjali Jindal Naik, COO and co-founder of Cartken.
The pilot with Cartken, Mitsubishi’s first time trying out delivery robots, will help the company explore other use cases for the tech while tapping into the nascent Japanese autonomous delivery market.
“Mitsubishi Electric would like to create the new robot delivery market in Japan by using Cartken robots,” Naoki Fujita, who manages Mitsubishi Electric’s Mobility Innovation Department, told TechCrunch. “This is a totally new attempt for us, and in this process, we can utilize our knowledge, technology and even relationships with customers from Mitsubishi’s various business units to see the development of this program succeed and expand into new markets where the technology can be used.”
While the first phase of the partnership sees Mitsubishi as a distributor for Cartken’s tech, down the line, the two companies intend to work together to develop additional technology that will support Mitsubishi’s future partnerships. For example, they’re currently looking into the development of facility technology that can help Cartken’s robots interact with elevators, said Fujita.
Cartken, which partnered with REEF Technology last year to bring its self-driving robots to deliver food in downtown Miami, will not only gain from Mitsubishi’s expertise in electrical equipment, but it will also help the startup establish a presence in Japan.
Starting a pilot at Aeon Mall will help with that. Aeon is one of the largest retailers in Asia, with a retail network that spans not just hundreds of malls, but also convenience stores and supermarkets.
“The selection of Aeon Mall is because it is the perfect ecosystem to test the robots’ success in a setting that is high-volume,” Naik told TechCrunch. “Also, Aeon Mall allows for a range of use-cases to be investigated, with the goal of quickly adding more robots to allow more visitors to experience delivery service, and then scaling up by 2022.”
Cartken’s Model C robots were chosen by Mitsubishi because of their high rating in safety and dependability in both indoor and outdoor settings, said Fujita. The startup says its robots can navigate autonomously inside and outside the mall, but they are all equipped with remote monitoring systems that allow for human override if necessary.
“So far we’ve only encountered a few situations that need emergency remote assistance,” said Naik. “New construction that requires an alternate robot route is an example of where a remote operator gets involved. Similarly, remote assistance is also used in the setup phase, allowing us to deploy in just a few days while the robots learn a map of the service area.”
Recently, competitor Serve Robotics, a spinout of Uber, announced its robots’ ability to handle similar levels of autonomy. The company said in certain operational design domains, AKA geofenced areas, its robots can reach full autonomy. As with Cartken, its robots also have remote operators on standby in the case of emergency.