Air travelers with disabilities will have a much easier time navigating one of Japan's main airports, thanks to new smart wheel chairs.
Haneda Airport outside Tokyo is beginning tests of the WHILL NEXT, an app-controlled self-driving wheel chair that can take users around the airport and even bring their luggage in a separate wireless vehicle behind them.
It is hoped the system will be in place, alongside new smart billboards and navigation apps, in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Designed specifically for navigating crowded areas, the smart wheel chair also has several other features that make it perfect for airports, such as the ability to link to sensor-equipped luggage carts that automatically follow the wheelchair without getting lost.
The WHILL NEXT uses sensors and image recognition to detect obstacles and navigate the airport.
'Using autonomous mobility technology developed for the autonomous delivery robot HOSPI, the wheelchair can identify its own position, select routes and automatically move to destinations input via smartphones,' says Panasonic.
'It can travel specifically to shops or boarding gates.'
If the wheel chair senses a potential collision, it will stop automatically.
The wheelchairs can also connect to each other with sensors, enabling families and groups to travel together in tandem around the airport in columns.
Afterward, the wheel chairs even stick together on their way to the return location to reduce the workload for airport staff.
They have a range of 15 miles and a speed of 5.5 mph.
his year, we will conduct technical trials of the Automatic Stop, Autonomous Mobility and Tandem Movement functions within the airport,' says the company.
'With the cooperation of airlines, we will also test ways to reduce the burden on staff and improve customer convenience.'
The wheelchairs were developed by Panasonic and WHILL Inc. and are part of a wider program to equip the airport with robots responsible for various tasks from information and transportation to cleaning.
In the development of this technology, we have also received a grant from the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).
Haneda Airport is massive and one of the two primary airport's serving the Greater Tokyo Metro Area.
It can serve 90 million passengers annually and is testing the self-driving wheel chairs now through March 2018 along with other technology from Panasonic and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT) to alleviate human staff of some tasks.
Another Panasonic test involves a joint project with route-information provider Jorudan for a one-stop, multilinguial information portal from transportation booking.
One initiative involving NTT's Kazashite Guidance will allow passengers to overcome any language barriers with a website that easily translates information - such as signs and menus - throughout the airport without needing to download any software.
They're also looking into better voice guidance and a way to use image recognition technology to measure congestion in passenger flow in order to apple techniques to reduce it.
Development on the wheel chair began in 2010 after a friend of founder and CEO Sugie Satoshi told him, 'I've even given up on going to the grocery store just two blocks away.'
His friend, a wheel chair user, didn't like the attention he got while using it public, saying others saw him as 'weak' or 'ill.'
'As a friend, we knew him to be amazingly independent, fun loving and very social. We wanted everyone to be able to see the true person, the person we knew,' reads the company's website.
'So we set out to create a mobility device that would empower our friend, enable him to be himself and to do the things he wanted to with confidence and enthusiasm.'
A year later in 2011, the friend got his revolutionary new wheel chair, and the team also exhibited it at the 2011 Tokoyo Motor Show.
The overwhelmingly positive response made it clear the 'many people desired this kind of innovation and new found freedom,' and then WHILL was officially founded.
A year later in 2011, the friend got his revolutionary new wheel chair, and the team also exhibited it at the 2011 Tokoyo Motor Show. The overwhelmingly positive response made it clear the 'many people desired this kind of innovation and new found freedom,' and then WHILL was officially founded
There are other companies and researchers developing self-driving wheel chairs as well.
A robotics team out of Canada has been working on a cost-effective version that would go for between $300 and $7000, rather than upwards of $10,000 like the WHILL wheelchair or others they say go for $30,000.
The current project led by University of Toronto professor and principal investigator Jonathan Kelly got off the ground two years ago, and now the team is working to further develop the chair for outdoor use.
His purpose was to develop a chair to help people who cannot operate a typical wheelchair, such as people with hand tremors, spinal cord injuries and ALS.
'All of these technologies are extremely difficult to use and very tedious to use. They're basically exhausting,' he told The National Observer of the currently available options.
'For users with these types of mobility impairments, if we can enable autonomous navigation, it could really dramatically enhance their quality of life.'
Researchers at Nortwestern University's Assistive and Rehabilitation Robotics Laboratory are working on an autonomous wheelchair for the same reason as well.
'For many people it's a burden or very fatiguing mentally and physically to operate the wheelchair,' Brenna Argall, a professor working on the technology, told Co.Exist.
'There is a lot we can borrow from the field of and what mobile robots have been able to do on their own for decades now.'
Then there's MIT developing one for hospitals and nursing homes as well as Oregon state, which is working on a low-cost kit to make typical wheelchairs autonomous.