Smart wheelchairs and vehicles unveiled to boost productivity at Changi Airport

A robotic chef that prepares laksa, an automated food delivery vehicle and smart wheelchairs are some of the new technologies unveiled at the new virtual centre called TechnIC@SATS.

SINGAPORE - Moving people and things in Changi Airport looks to be getting easier for passengers and airport staff. This is thanks to new technology like smart wheelchairs and vehicles revealed on Wednesday (May 24).

Currently, passengers who used wheelchairs provided at the airport had to wheel themselves around or be wheeled by others like airport staff. But going by a trial, that is in its first month, new smart wheelchairs could make this easier.

An airport staff member can simply press a button on the smart wheelchair and, through sensors and software, the wheelchair will be able to follow the staff member - and only the staff member - without the wheelchair user having to lift a finger. Other smart wheelchairs can also follow this first wheelchair by themselves.

Changi Airport has also been testing smart vehicles that work in a similar way to transport food trolleys in the past two months.

These are among the 13 technological exhibits unveiled on Wednesday at the TechnIC@SATS exhibition held at Changi Airport.

During this exhibition, ground handling firm and food solutions provider SATS announced an investment of $110 million in technological innovations.

The firm also launched TechnIC@SATS, a rebranding of the original SATS Technology Innovation Centre that was established in August 2014.

"Through this initiative, we can leverage technology to automate manpower intensive processes, thus raising Changi (Airport's) productivity and efficiency," Mr Ng Chee Meng, second Minister for Transport, said in a statement.

The guest of honour also said that the Government hopes to see the development of more partnerships and new ideas to "further enhance Changi's competitiveness through innovation and productivity".

A total of 13 exhibits, including the smart wheelchair system, were displayed, providing a peek into Changi Airport's high-tech future.

Demands for airport staff to transport wheelchair-bound passengers can pose constraints on manpower, especially during peak periods.

So, SATS worked with ST Dynamics and Cyclect to create semi-autonomous wheelchairs, allowing a single staff member to transport several wheelchairs at once.

Similar technology is also used for another automatic guided vehicle named Dolly, in which the smart vehicle would enable an employee to transport up to three food trolleys together.

"Before, it was very manpower intensive, and some even suffered from back injuries because of (pushing individual food trolleys)," said Mr Donald Lum, SATS' assistant Vice President of technology.

Airport catering staff have to only push a small food trolley, with larger food trolleys weighing between 150 to 200kg moving smoothly across the carpeted floor closely behind.

For SATS, many of the technological innovations are inspired by their employees. Ms Pauline Tan, senior vice president of technology at SATS, said": "We find out what (the staff) need, and find the solution to day to day challenges we have."

The initiative, supported and co-funded by both the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), will increase productivity with the current workforce to meet growing demand.

"We can provide more dynamic, agile services that make travel more seamless for passengers and enhances connectivity," SATS president and chief executive officer Alex Hungate said.

"Constant innovation and productivity gains are crucial in today's competitive marketplace."