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Self-driving wheelchairs are tootling about JFK airport in British Airways test

British Airways is testing out an autonomous electric wheelchair for people with mobility needs at JFK airport in New York City.

Built by Silicon Valley-based tech firm Whill, the high-tech vehicle incorporates anti-collision technology and lets the rider use a touchscreen to select from a range of destinations within the airport.

“The vehicle safely navigates the terminal without the need for assistance from travel companions or the airport support team, currently responsible for escorting customers from check-in directly to the boarding gate,” British Airways said in a release detailing the trial.

British Airways

The rider can change their destination at any point, and also select multiple places to visit on their way to the boarding gate. After the rider exits the vehicle at the gate, the machine returns to the docking station by itself, ready for the next person.

The autonomous wheelchair offers a smooth ride and can make tight turns, but with a top speed of just 5 mph, don’t rely on it to whiz you to your gate if you’re late for your flight.

British Airways said that almost half a million of its customers require additional assistance each year, and so the airline is keen to explore new ways to offer them a more comfortable travel experience.

WHILL Airport Mobility Service

“Our customers tell us they would like greater independence and control over their journey through the airport, so we were keen to trial autonomous devices and see our customers’ response to the very latest mobility technology in a real airport environment,” Ricardo Vidal, British Airways’ head of innovation, said in a release.

He added that further testing of the service will be carried out at the U.K.’s Heathrow airport over the next few months with a view to introducing the technology alongside its team of customer service staff.

As part of broader efforts by British Airways to stay at the forefront of airport innovation, the carrier is also experimenting with biometric boarding, autonomous baggage vehicles, and A.I.-powered robots that can interact with passengers in multiple languages to answer a range of travel-related questions.

Whill first landed on our radar in 2016 with a version of its wheelchair that can take on rugged terrain, while the company also caught our attention at CES 2019. It currently focuses on two designs — the highly portable Model Ci as used by British Airways, and the more durable Model A for indoor or outdoor mobility.

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Trevor Mogg
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