Autonomous wheelchairs are coming to airports, Abu Dhabi is the first

Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates has launched an innovative trial of autonomous wheelchairs at Abu Dhabi International Airport, in advance of its move to the new Midfield Terminal. The trial is a partnership between Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Airports in collaboration with personal electric vehicle supplier WHILL and information technology company SITA.

The WHILL ‘Autonomous Drive System’ wheelchairs enable guests with restricted mobility to move around the airport environment on their own, without the need for assistance from a member of staff. The introduction of the autonomous option provides guests with the choice of freedom or to have traditional assistance via a team of dedicated porters, which will remain available.

The trial, which will last until the end of the year, will involve intensive testing and mapping of the airport environment to facilitate autonomous movement. This wheelchair is a first for any airline and airport in the region and features sensors to detect obstructions, providing an automatic ‘stop’ function. Future features in the pipeline include real-time gate and boarding time updates for guests.

The final stage of the trial will involve guests of the airline, with restricted mobility, self-driving the wheelchairs through Abu Dhabi International Airport, navigating through the duty-free shops and lounges to their departure gate, without the need of assistance from a member of staff. On arrival at the gate, and once the guest has boarded the flight, the wheelchairs will have the capability to return themselves to the collection point without staff involvement.

In addition to this trial, the airline is exploring other technologies that can ease the stress of travelling for guests with other impairments such as blindness and deafness.

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