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Smart Self-driving Wheelchairs to Soon Arrive in Hospitals and Airports


Researchers from Panasonic and Whill, Inc. have developed an autonomous, self-driving wheelchair. This amazing new piece of medical technology made its grand appearance this summer, and will soon be arriving at more locations across the globe.

The self-driving wheelchair was tested over the summer at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. There it underwent a series of experiments to determine how it handled a variety of different obstacles. The Whill Next, as the chair is called, relies on sensors to detect and avoid nearby obstacles. But the chair does much more than simply avoid dangers. Thanks to automation technology from Panasonic, the Whill Next can provide users with a level of interactivity not previously seen. The wheelchair is capable of identifying a user’s location, selecting the best route, and moving to a selected destination. All of this can be achieved with the help of a smartphone app. The app can even hail the wheelchair as needed by the user.

The Whill Next can also interact with other wheelchairs that are nearby. It can sync up with other chair to travel in a column, making group travel far easier. Finally, when all is said and done the wheelchair can automatically be made to return to home base. This will be a huge benefit to airport staff, who will no longer have to worry about collecting abandoned chairs once users have departed.

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According to Panasonic, the Whill Next will undergo technical trials and public testing this year. But it won’t be the only autonomous wheelchair on the market. The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) developed its own self-driving wheelchair in September of 2016. Their model was able to successfully navigate the hallways of Singapore’s Changi General Hospital. Currently, SMART is testing two wheelchairs in Singapore and another two at MIT. Their version of this technology comes equipped with six wheels for added stability, and the design is focused on making the chair able to easily maneuver through small doorways and tight corners.

“When we visited several retirement communities, we realized that the quality of life is dependent on mobility. We want to make it really easy for people to move around.”

Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a principal investigator in the SMART Future Urban Mobility research group

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