British Airways trails a self-driving electric wheelchair for airports

The next time when you fly from the John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport, don’t be surprised if you get overtaken in the terminal by an electric wheelchair without a passenger. When you see the same wheelchair a few minutes later coming down the opposite road, but this time with people on board, you will understand that you are experiencing the latest in high tech for the disabled at airports. These are self-propelled or autonomous electric wheelchairs.

Inside New York’s JFK airport, British Airways began experimenting fully autonomous, electric mobility devices as it continues its journey to become the airline of choice for customers with both hidden and visible disabilities.

The fully autonomous, electric mobility device.
The fully autonomous, electric mobility device.

The operation is very interesting as this means of transport are able to avoid obstacles and people with the help of anti-collision technologies. It can even find its way around the airport’s jumble of hallways and gates without staff having to attend.

The passenger can also program the wheelchair via a built-in touch display to visit all sorts of restaurants and shops at the airport before eventually driving out to the right gate – and on time, of course. The autonomous chair watches the time and interrupts the coziness if it goes beyond the planned journey.

Once the person is brought to the departure gate, the wheelchair will automatically return to its base, waiting for its next passenger. Here the chair itself can find and charge the battery while it has a break.

The self-driving wheelchair derives from WHILL’s Model Ci design presented at CES 2018 in Las Vegas. British Airways is investing £6.5 billion for its customers over five years and has already received a great positive response. After JFK airport, autonomous chairs will begin testing at Heathrow airport. The chairs are said to be around $4000.

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