FlyBe might have driven itself off a cliff, but good ol' British Airways is doing well enough to be trialling self-driving wheelchairs at London Heathrow airport.
It's been testing the robotic wheelchairs – made by a Japanese company called WHLL – at JFK in New York as part of the Valuable 500 Pledge, whereby CEO Alex Cruz agreed to improve access for people with disabilities.
British Airways Head of Innovation Ricardo Vidal explains:
"Our customers tell us they would like greater independence and control over their journey through the airport, so we were keen to trial autonomous devices and see our customers response to the very latest mobility technology in a real airport environment.
"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 electric wheelchairs have anti-collision tech and let their passenger choose anywhere in the airport to navigate to. BA claims there's no need for assistance from other people, which would be a real improvement to independence. Passengers can change destination as many times as they like – ideal for doing a bit of duty-free shopping before boarding – and once they get to their gate, they just hop into a chair and the wheelchair drives itself back to the docking station.
Currently, somewhere around 500,000 passengers needing extra assistance fly with BA every year, and the company is expecting that number to rise by 10% by 2021. It's planning "to become the airline of choice for customers with both hidden and visible disabilities."
BA also recently introduced a specialist accessibility team to help travellers with accessibility needs, and says satisfaction among that customer group has more than doubled since. [TheNextWeb]
This post originally appeared on Gizmodo UK, which is gobbling up the news in a different timezone.