In May, All Nippon Airways and Panasonic announced they’d be partnering to test a fleet of self-driving electric wheelchairs at Tokyo Narita International Airport, and now they’re taking those tests to the next level. 

A line of three wheelchair users, accompanied by an ANA staffer, at Tokyo Narita International Airport
ANA is expanding its self-driving wheelchair tests, trialling them with actual passengers until 28 November. Image © All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd.

With robotic elements and tracking capabilities, the wheelchairs are designed to detect and avoid obstacles, and from 9 October through 28 November, passengers themselves will trial the new technology before its anticipated 2020 rollout. "Narita Airport is a gateway to Japan for millions of travellers every year," Hirasawa said, adding that the partnership "will make Narita Airport more welcoming and accessible, both of which are crucial to maintaining the airport's status as a hub for international travel in the years to come.”

The Tokyo hub’s gates are notoriously far-flung, and as it stands now, the carrier uses some 300 wheelchairs a day to help passengers get from one end of the airport to another to make tight connections but hopes that the new chairs should relieve some of that stress. "The self-driving wheelchairs integrate the latest smart technology to help those that are unfamiliar with Narita Airport reach their gates on time,” ANA senior VP Juichi Hirasawa said in a press release.

Three of ANA's new self-driving wheelchairs in a line
The smart-tech-enabled chairs automatically follow the line leader to their destination, with an ANA staffer serving as a guide. Image © All Nippon Airways Co., Ltd.

The airline is no stranger to breaking new ground – it also tested a driverless bus at Haneda Airport and Japan’s first autonomous towing tractors at Saga airport, in 2019 alone. And it’s in good company. From Edinburgh Airport’s reported £425,000 commitment to improving the experience for passengers with reduced mobility to Google Maps rollout of detailed voice guidance to the first country ever to be awarded the title of Accessible Tourist Destination, there’s been a groundswell of support for accessibility measures this year. 

"ANA has always prioritized making our services accessible,” Hirasawa said, “so these tests will go a long way towards making sure that the full benefits of Narita Airport are open to all passengers.” 

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