Automated rideables roll at Tokyo airport in social distancing play

TOKYO (Reuters) - Personal mobility devices to transport passengers with limited mobility are rolling at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, in an automation play for labour shortage-hit Japan that has taken on new urgency as the coronavirus outbreak compels social distancing.

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The initial three devices, which replace push wheelchairs, are from Yokohama-headquartered startup Whill and run between security and passenger gates, equipped with cameras, lidar and other tech to autonomously navigate the environment.

Whill aims to expand the number of devices at Haneda and into other airports, with the pandemic giving a boost to the startup, which also has a consumer-facing business for devices without autonomy.

"Due to COVID-19 this business will accelerate," said Whill co-founder and Chief Executive Satoshi Sugie, a former product designer at automaker Nissan Motor Co Ltd 7201.T.

Haneda is currently emptied out as the pandemic halts air travel. The startup ran trials at airports last year under normal conditions.

Whill, whose other co-founders came from tech groups Sony Corp 6758.T and Olympus Corp 7733.T, has found a foothold in Japan, where strict regulation has held back the growth of new mobility options like ride-hailing and electric scooters.

As a service for users with mobility problems “there is already regulation,” said Sugie. “It’s not only fun it’s a necessity.”

The startup has taken advantage of Japan’s supply chain and the affordable pool of engineers coming from the big firms that have traditionally dominated innovation there, Sugie said.

The device’s production is located in Taiwan.

Whill has raised more than $100 million, with investors including Fidelity’s Eight Roads Ventures.

The fundraising environment in Japan for startups is improving, Sugie said.

Reporting by Sam Nussey and Yuki Nitta; Editing by Christopher Cushing