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Japan, Sep 21, 2017,  by Allianz Partners Business Insights

Autonomous wheelchairs under test at a Japanese airport

A brand-new type of intelligent wheelchair is currently being tested in Tokyo airport (Japan). Created by Panasonic, the WHILL NEXT transports passengers with reduced mobility independently and safely around the airport. Users can even move around in groups or with luggage to the gates, exits and shops. 


The real-life situation testing of the WHILL NEXT, a self-driving wheelchair, began on 8th August in Tokyo-Haneda airport (Japan). Panasonic, the Japanese manufacturer behind this project, eventually hopes to roll out its new creation to all of the country's airports in order to make things easier for passengers who have trouble getting around on their own. The tests are due to continue until March 2018.


Ready for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020?


If the tests prove successful, these intelligent wheelchairs could be in use in Japan's airports by 2020, when Tokyo is set to host the Summer Olympic Games. As reported on French website Numerama, the country hopes to use the sporting event as a showcase for presenting the latest high-tech devices developed by its inventors to the world.

In the meantime, they need to ensure that the wheelchair will not malfunction during use. Equipped with a sensor system to detect obstacles, the Panasonic device stops automatically if a collision risk is detected. The route the contraption takes through the terminals is also calculated automatically, using geolocation and cartography systems.   


Speeds of 5.5mph and a range of nearly 15 miles


When they first get into the wheelchair, the passenger must enter their destination into an app previously downloaded onto their smartphone. The device calculates the best route for taking the wheelchair and its passenger to the terminal, boarding gate, exit, shop or desk that the passenger wishes to go to. The wheelchair's speed of around 5.5mph (9km/h) is achieved using a battery whose charge lasts for around 15 miles (24 kilometres), explains the Daily Mail.



Solutions for passengers travelling in groups or with luggage


Since most people travelling through an airport have luggage with them, the creators of the WHILL NEXT have provided a solution for transporting the luggage of people with reduced mobility. The self-driving wheelchair can be linked to a special luggage cart, which is programmed to follow the wheelchair's path.

Finally, for people travelling in groups, the WHILL NEXT concept enables the intelligent wheelchairs to move around together, in a single-file line. Another advantage of this technology is that it helps move passengers around without creating extra work for airport staff, even when the passengers have been dropped off. Once they have left their passengers at their destination, the wheelchairs join together to go back to their return location.


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