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.
Mohammad Al Bulooki, Chief Operating Officer, Etihad Aviation Group said: “Etihad is an airline that has innovation at its core, be that on the ground or inflight. This latest trial of autonomous wheelchairs not only showcases the airline’s commitment to innovation, but more importantly inclusive innovation. This trial is particularly important because it empowers Etihad Airways’ guests and provides them with a level of freedom at the airport which hasn’t been available before. The possibilities that this new technology introduces are truly exciting and the teams are working hard to ensure that the experience of the airlines’ guests is as seamless and independent as possible.”
Bryan Thompson, Chief Executive Officer of Abu Dhabi Airports, said: “We are delighted to be working with Etihad Airways to trial the use of autonomous wheelchairs at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Enhancing the freedom of movement of those with mobility restrictions forms a part of our wider commitment to delivering a smooth and seamless passenger experience to each and every traveler through the implementation of innovative and cutting-edge technologies throughout Abu Dhabi International Airport and our upcoming Midfield Terminal.”
“Long distance travel has evolved in the past few decades, however there has been no innovation for travelling short distances. WHILL’s strength lies in the capability to provide hardware and service globally in the ‘safe, single-person vehicle’ category. We want to create a world with smart and fun transportation for everyone including those with reduced mobility, and are excited about the opportunity to trial our technology at Abu Dhabi International Airport in partnership with Etihad and Abu Dhabi Airports,” said Satoshi Sugie, Founder and CEO of WHILL.
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.