An autonomous mobility system that works like a wheelchair works at Tokyo airport

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An autonomous mobility system that works like a wheelchair without anyone pushing it is scuttling around a Tokyo airport to help with social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The personal mobility machine seats one person and runs on its own without crashing, even when people jump out unexpectedly, for about 600 meters (660 yards) on a pre-programmed route at Haneda International Airport, WHILL, the company behind the technology, said Monday.

WHILL Chief Executive Satoshi Sugie said robotics and autonomous driving technology that reduce the need for human labor are a good match for these times of “living with” the coronavirus.

“We are rapidly developing our business in order to help restore a world where people can enjoy moving around with peace of mind,” he told The Associated Press.

This photo provided by WHILL, Inc., shows the trial of the company’s Autonomous Drive System at Haneda Airport in Tokyo in November, 2019. The autonomous mobility system, which works like a wheelchair without anyone pushing it, is scuttling around a Tokyo airport to help with social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. (WHILL, Inc. via AP)

The ride lasts just several minutes, traveling from security clearance to the boarding gate at a maximum speed of 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) per hour.

But hopes are high that the technology, which uses sensors and cameras, can help in other places, such as hospitals, parks and shopping centers. Labor shortages are a problem in Japan, as well as other nations.

Tests have been carried out at various airports since last year, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and the company hopes to introduce it at airports around the world.

The person on the machine can start or stop it through a tablet controller. It runs on lithium-ion batteries and returns automatically to where it started.

Anyone needing help walking long distances can use it at Terminal One at Haneda, for what’s referred to as that “last-mile mobility,” according to WHILL, based in Yokohama, Japan.

Although vacuum cleaners, machines carrying things and talking robots are already moving about at airports and other places, personal mobility that runs autonomously is still relatively rare in public places.


BUT ALSO ….

Autonomous vehicles can add a

new member to their ranks—the self-driving wheelchair. This summer, two robotic wheelchairs made headlines: one at a Singaporean hospital and another at a Japanese airport.

THE UBER OF WHEELCHAIRS: At Haneda
Airport in Tokyo, people with disabilities will be able to hail autonomous wheelchairs using a smartphone app that lets them select a destination, sit back, and relax.

The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, or SMART, developed the former, first deployed in Singapore’s Changi General Hospital in September 2016, where it suc- cessfully navigated the hospital’s hallways.

It is the latest in a string of autonomous vehicles made by SMART, including a golf cart, an electric taxi, and most recently, a scooter that zipped more than 100 MIT visitors around on tours in 2016.

The SMART self-driving wheel-chair has been in development since January 2016, says Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a principal investigator in the SMART Future Urban Mobility research group. Today, SMART has two wheelchairs in Singapore and two wheel- chairs at MIT being tested in a variety of settings, says Rus.

The robot’s computer uses data from three lidars to make a map. A localization algorithm then determines where the smart chair is on the map. The chair’s six wheels lend stability, and the chair is designed to make tight turns and fit through normal-size doorframes.

“When we visited several retirement communities, we realized that the quality of life is dependent on mobility. We want to make it really easy for people to move around,” said Rus in a recent MIT statement.

A second autonomous wheelchair recently premiered at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, designed by Panasonic and Whill, creator of the Model A Whill wheelchair, a sleek, high-tech wheelchair now on the market in Japan and the United States.

Panasonic is planning to conduct tech- nical trials with five Whill Model M chairs at Haneda Airport this year, says Pan- asonic spokesperson Mio Yamanaka.

Like the SMART wheelchair, the Whill Model M uses lidars (two, in this case) to detect nearby obstacles. It also employs automation technology developed for Panasonic’s autonomous (and adorable) hospital delivery robot, Hospi.

“The routes are created based on the prepared map information and its position information,” says Yamanaka. Then, an onboard computer decides the best route based on the chair’s position. Users choose their destination via smartphone app and can even hail a chair using the app—the Uber of wheelchairs.

The Whill Model M is also able to sync with nearby wheelchairs to travel in a column, which is useful for a fam- ily or a group, the company notes. Best of all, each wheelchair automatically returns to its home base, reducing the need for airport staff to collect the chairs. Panasonic hopes to expand use of the chair to large indoor facilities such as shopping centers, says Yamanaka.

Beyond hospitals and airports, the SMART team says it envisions a connected autonomous mobility system, where a user could use a scooter or wheelchair indoors at an office, zip outside and pick up a golf cart to cross the parking lot, and slip into an autonomous car to drive home. Recent studies with the scooter suggest the control algorithms work indoors as well as out, according to a press release last year. “The autonomous wheel- chair could be very useful in any pedestrian environment—including hospitals and airports—and we are exploring all these possibilities,” Rus

tells IEEE Spectrum.

Yet the field faces the challenge of commercialization. Not all high-tech wheelchairs have sold well, such as Dean Kamen’s stair-climbing iBot, whose US $25,000 price tag was one reason the device was discontinued in 2009.

But hopefully the next gen- eration of wheelchairs won’t be as expensive, says Rus. “The system consists of an off-the-shelf wheelchair augmented with an autonomy package. We hope the price point of the autonomy package can come down to make the system afford- able.”

What may also help is that the Whill Model M has been granted clearance as a medical device by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That means doctors can prescribe the chair for their patients and at least part of the cost will be picked up by insurers.  

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