NTT DoCoMo rolls out smartphone-controlled wheelchairs in Japan

Japanese mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo will start renting out smartphone-controlled wheelchairs to users in Japan amid a larger push to get personal electric vehicles on sidewalks and streets.

DoCoMo is an investor in mobility startup Whill, which produces the Model A four-wheeled electric wheelchair. It will be deployed in public facilities such as theme parks, hotels, shopping centers and hospitals in Japan.

DoCoMo will add technologies such as wireless communication and GPS to the chairs, which will also have real-time, location-monitoring and sharing functions based on DoCoMo's bicycle-sharing platform in Tokyo and other cities. The bike business had nearly 90,000 users as of December.

"We have been aiming to develop new businesses in the environmental ecology sector," an NTT spokesman said via email. "The bicycle-sharing service was popular in Europe, and we thought we might be able to use our mobile technologies to offer these services in Japan as well."

Aside from remote control, smartphones can be used to set speed and acceleration, seat positioning and GPS mapping for Whill's connected wheelchairs. The chairs have front wheels with 24 rollers allowing for very tight turns and four-wheel drive for travel over terrain such as grass, pebbles and snow. It can also go up and down slopes.

DoCoMo and Whill, which is based in Tokyo and San Francisco, will rent out the chairs for ¥39,000 (US$325) per month with a four-year contract.

DoCoMo said it will also start a field trial to bring the technology in its bike-sharing platform to an autonomous, walking-assist electric cart developed by Osaka-based RT Works as well as a vehicle called a Walking Bicycle developed by Katayama Kogyo, based in Okayama, western Japan. The seatless Walking Bicycle looks like a cross between a stair climber exercise machine and a scooter. As users step on the pedals, they power its motor.

DoCoMo's push into personal mobility is part of a larger trend to develop small, connected vehicles to help the rapidly aging population get around. Last week, Chiba Institute of Technology showed off an electric kickboard-style scooter than can transform into a shopping cart and autonomously avoid hitting obstacles in its path.

The three-wheel ILY-A scooter, which stands for "Innovative Life for You - Active," can be driven while seated or standing and has a laser range finder that can detect obstacles up to 5m away. It has a top speed of about 10km (6.2 miles) per hour and a rechargeable battery that can last a whole day.

"Our ultimate target in this prototype and subsequent mobility developments is to promote one's daily-life activities," said Takayuki Furuta of the institute's Future Robotics Technology Center, adding that the technology in the vehicle is an evolution from robots developed at the center, which have included machines used to assess the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant north of Tokyo.

Tim Hornyak covers Japan and emerging technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Tim on Twitter at @robotopia.

Tim Hornyak

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