Getting from point A to point B in an airport can be a challenge for almost anyone; in some of America’s biggest airports, you may need to walk up to a mile between gates, lugging heavy bags all the way. And navigating airport terminals is particularly challenging for people who live with physical and cognitive impairments — making wheelchair assistance all the more important for these passengers. But, in turn, the need to have sufficient staff to push wheelchairs presents a significant challenge to airlines. The mobility equipment supplier WHILL has come up with a solution for all: autonomous power chairs for travelers in airports.
So how does the WHILL system work? At check-in, passengers can use their smartphones or a WHILL kiosk to order a power chair and settle in. The user simply taps where they want to go on a touch screen and the chair does the rest. No worries about bumping into anything along the way, as the chair’s sensors can detect and avoid obstacles, with automatic breaks eliminating the possibility of collisions. Want to make a few stops along the way? Not a problem. Users can program stops at locations, including restrooms, restaurants, and shops. For those who desire more control over their navigation, there’s also a manual-drive option.
But the chair, which was recently honored with a CES Innovation Award, doesn’t even need a user to navigate the airport. After the passenger is delivered to their departure gate, the chair automatically returns to its home station. Similarly, the chairs can be programmed to meet passengers at their arrival gates and ferry them between gates during layovers. This system was tested in a number of U.S. airports, including Grand Rapids, San Jose, and Atlanta, and WHILL says a permanent installation at Winnipeg International Airport is in the works. The company also intends to place the chairs in shopping malls and other destinations.
This type of service helps lots more people than one might assume. According to the aerospace company FACC, which manufactures components for aircraft, one of the fastest growing demographics in aviation is passengers with reduced mobility. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 14% of adults in America have difficulty walking due to a mobility disability, and close to 11% of U.S. adults have a cognitive disability that affects concentration and decision making. Overall, the CDC says around 1 in 4 adults in America (about 61 million people) have some type of disability. And one day soon, many of these folks may be cruising through airports with automated ease.