Airport independence for passengers with mobility challenges
Aidrivers wins Hillingdon Enterprise funding for autonomous wheelchair project
A project to develop and demonstrate an innovative autonomous electric wheelchair at airports could transform the airport experience for passengers who need assistance with mobility.
London-based Aidrivers has been awarded a grant from the Hillingdon Enterprise Fund towards a project which will cover proof-of-concept through to trials. An existing wheelchair will be retrofitted with Aidrivers’ proven AI-enabled autonomous system, and the trials will be carried out using volunteers.
Hillingdon Council’s Enterprise Fund supports the long-term benefits of jobs and business growth, with a specific set of target areas for projects which were required to demonstrate an economic and/or employment benefit for Hillingdon. Aidrivers’ project ‘ticked the boxes’ for innovative start-up, aviation/supply chains and high growth, said Dr Darion Grant, Aidrivers’ Technical Lead.
A global specialist in AI-enabled autonomous solutions across industrial mobility automation, Aidrivers will be building on its vast experience of deploying autonomous vehicles in a variety of environments. The London airport project will focus on moving the autonomous wheelchair smoothly through traffic and people — for example, taking a passenger from check-in area to departure gate.
“We are currently best known for our work with container ports and logistics operations, but we have done a similar wheelchair project previously, working with Dubai airport,” said Dr Grant. “The aim behind the Hillingdon project is to move into airport logistics — this proof-of-concept project will put us in a strong position. Our technology can also be applied to a trolley for the movement of baggage, and this will be another part of the project.”
Developing an autonomous wheelchair will provide complete independence to passengers with mobility restrictions, he said. “The motivation for this project is that within the passenger community, people with mobility restrictions have a tremendous challenge. It affects their freedom and ability to travel and enjoy the pleasures of travel that everyone else enjoys.”
Recent studies made clear that London Heathrow needed to improve the support for passengers facing such challenges, said Dr Grant. In addition, and in common with many sectors, the airport is facing the challenge of adequate staffing — the autonomous solution will reduce the dependency on airport staff to move wheelchairs around the airport terminals.
“This project will enable the airport to use its limited resources in a more efficient manner and enable people with restricted mobility to have their own independence, which is huge. There is a lot of need for this type of support for people — in airports and in other areas,” said Dr Grant.
The Hillingdon Enterprise funding is for a 12-month project, with the possibility of extending for another six months.
An existing wheelchair will be retrofitted with Aidrivers’ systems, including sensors for perception to assess the surrounding environment and activities. The project will also involve installation of charging points around the airport. The retrofitting option makes the most of wheelchairs already in operation, but longer-term Aidrivers is also proposing to work with manufacturing partners to develop and produce purpose-designed autonomous wheelchairs for the future.
“Our vision longer-term is to move into providing ‘mobility as a service’ to airports in the UK and across the world,” said Dr Grant. “There is a high demand for such a solution, particularly due to an increasing ageing population.”