Published On: Mon, Aug 14th, 2017

Panasonic Tests Self-Driving Wheelchairs at Tokyo Airport

Panasonic is testing a new line of self-driving wheelchairs at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport. The company hopes to have plenty of its electric wheelchairs, called WHILL NEXT, up and running in time for the Olympics in 2020.

While trials are already underway, Panasonic is still working on new improvements to make the airport more accessible to those with mobility issues.

Using a dedicated smartphone app, users can tap a button and call a wheelchair to their location. The self-driving wheelchairs can pick up passengers exiting a plane or assist a passenger looking to board. When assisting with boarding, the wheelchair can take the passenger directly to the check-in counter before ending at the gate.

Panasonic is also testing an app that can help foreign travelers overcome language barriers that often make navigating an airport more difficult. By pointing a smartphone camera at signage and other objects, the app will translate the information into the user’s native language.

At the end of the day, the wheelchairs will drive themselves to a designated spot in the airport for storage and maintenance.

Panasonic’s autonomous wheelchair has many of the same features we find in self-driving cars. It can detect objects, people, luggage and a host of other obstacles.

The company plans to continue running tests until March 2018 and hopes to have a final version ready in time for the Olympics.

In a press release about the testing, Panasonic says its self-driving wheelchairs will help “reduce the burden on staff and improve customer service.”

The chairs feature an automatic stop function, which engages when sensors detect nearby obstacles. It can also detect its own position and find the most efficient route to where you need to go, whether that be a nearby shop or your boarding gate.

To bring this function to life, Panasonic made use of the autonomous mobility technology made for HOSPI, the delivery robot.

“It can travel efficiently to specific shops or boarding gates,” said Panasonic in its press release.

WHILL NEXT chairs can also move together in a single-file line. If groups or families want to use multiple wheelchairs, they can all travel together.

The chairs also connect to sensor-equipped luggage carts, which will automatically follow the wheelchair to its destination.

When the chairs are finished bringing passengers to their destinations, they take off on their own to either the next traveler or their home station.

The WHILL NEXT chairs have a speed of 5.5 mph and a range of 15 miles.

Panasonic has received a grant from NEDO (New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization) to develop its autonomous wheelchair technology.

News of the self-driving wheelchair comes after Japanese carmaker Nissan announced a self-driving chair in 2016 called the ProPilot. The ProPilot was designed to make people more comfortable when waiting in line.

Users can read, chat, or even nap while waiting in line, and the chair will continue moving until they reach the front of the line. After getting up, the chair will return itself to the back of the line.

Author: Jacob Maslow

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