Using technology to boost mobility – ANA partners with Panasonic to test self-driving electric wheelchairs at Tokyo Narita

Technology is being used throughout the customer journey to deliver a better experience. That has seen significant enhancements for travellers, especially in the fields of distribution and booking. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, airlines are looking at a variety of ways to use technology to deliver benefits to travellers and secure additional brand recognition.

Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) is currently working with Panasonic Corporation to test the latest generation of personal mobility, self-driving electric wheelchairs, as part of a far-reaching plan to increase mobility and accessibility options at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.

Incorporating robotic elements, these wheelchairs will be capable of safely navigating through the airport independently, making them an ideal mobility solution for passengers on connecting flights and a product that could help at hubs across the world.

“Narita Airport is a gateway to Japan for millions of travellers every year and we seek to partner with other leading Japanese innovators to make sure that arrival, departure and making connections are all as convenient as possible,” says Juichi Hirasawa, senior vice president of ANA.

The self-driving electric wheelchair has been jointly developed by Panasonic and Japanese company WHILL Co, and is capable of independently detecting and avoiding people and obstacles on its way to its destination. The wheelchairs function by following a predetermined leader to a common destination, and during the trial ANA staff will be on hand to serve as guides.

Supporting the needs of passengers with reduced mobility can be a challenge for airlines and airports, especially when it comes to flight connections. The smart elements and adaptability of these advanced personal electric vehicles make them an ideal addition at hub airports, but with crowds and the unpredictability of traveller movement within terminals, the trial will ultimately prove their capability in what could be described as a challenging usage environment.

WHILL describes its autonomous drive system as an ideal last-mile transportation solution that can be conveniently summoned for collection and with a return to base function upon completion of a journey or upon abandonment. The airport trial with ANA in Tokyo is expected to be the first of a number at facilities across the world, while other large venues, including theme parks, museums and hospitals have  been earmarked for future deployment, before ultimately moving to a mainstream audience on roadside pavements.

In the airport environment they certainly will prove valuable when you have multiple travellers with reduced mobility travelling along specific corridors, for example from the aircraft to baggage reclaim or to a central flight connections area. However, with the requirement to have a ‘leader’ vehicle the benefits would not be so obvious if the wheelchairs are having to travel along multiple routes.