Human-centric AI news and analysis

British Airways is testing self-driving wheelchairs at JFK and Heathrow

British Airways will debut its self-driving wheelchair trial at Heathrow International Airport in London over the next few months. It recently began testing the devices, made by Japanese startup WHLL, at JFK International Airport in New York.

According to a press release from British Airways, the trials are part of the company’s involvement with the Valuable 500 Pledge, a business-to-business initiative urging corporate leaders to provide better services for disabled people.

Ricardo Vidal, British Airways’ Head of Innovation, said:

Over the next few months we will be collaborating on a further trial at our busy home hub at Heathrow Terminal 5 to gather more feedback and explore the introduction of this technology alongside our team of customer service professionals to provide a truly seamless and accessible airport experience. I’m excited about the future of inclusive innovation to support the accelerating demand for accessible air travel.

The autonomous wheelchairs are designed to be as simple to operate as possible. Users simply sit in the chair, tap a button to indicate where they’d like to go, and they’re off. The wheelchair automatically navigates from point A to point B without intervention from the rider or airport staff. If the user changes their mind – perhaps they’d like to get coffee before continuing to their gate – they can change destinations with the tap of a button.

British Airways says users can change destinations as many times as they want. Once they’ve arrived at their gate, customers simply disembark the chair and it’ll return to its charging dock on its own.

This could be a game-changer for disabled customers. Especially those who don’t use mobility devices normally but, due to the size and traffic congestion of airports, need one when they travel. Furthermore, robot wheelchairs don’t take breaks, have trouble finding a customer, or mind stopping at ten different shops at different ends of the airport.

Being able to get around an airport without having to ask people for help – outside of getting directions – is a level of freedom every human deserves to experience.

Published March 4, 2020 — 20:29 UTC