Panasonic Smart Cart Helps You Take a Load Off
February 17, 2017      

The smart luggage revolution is under way. Suitcases that can move around and automatically follow users have been in the news recently, including luggage developed by Travelmate Robotics, NUA Robotics and Cowarobot.

Panasonic, though, has a different take: it’s developing smart carts that can carry ordinary suitcases around. Panasonic’s Smart Cart is a prototype mobile robot that can tow either standard airport luggage carts or grocery carts. It can haul up to 330 lbs, including the weight of the cart itself. The Smart Cart can autonomously follow its user by tracking his or her footsteps.

At a demonstration this week at Panasonic’s Tokyo showroom, the Smart Cart automatically followed a user in a WHILL NEXT electric wheelchair, which can execute very tight turns, by using a laser scanner. The user input a destination into a linked smartphone, and the machines began moving automatically. The cart pursued a circular path while following the wheelchair, with an unoccupied WHILL NEXT in between them.

“We see business opportunities related to wheelchair users in European airports, where providing access and services has become an obligation,” says Takeshi Ando, a deputy manager in Panasonic’s Robotics Promotion Office.

Panasonic Smart Cart Follow
Credit: Timothy Hornyak

“To use this in crowded places, we may add sensors that link to users’ smartphones or other devices so the Smart Cart can follow them accurately,” says Hikari Kurihara, an engineer in Panasonic’s Robotics Development Department.

Kurihara says she and fellow engineers want to increase the Smart Cart’s payload capacity to 440 lbs and equip it with a battery that would let it travel some 12.5 miles per charge. After gathering feedback from potential users, the engineers want to get the Smart Cart into airports by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, one of the major international gateways to Japan, has had robotic features such as Hitachi’s EMIEW3 humanoid, which completed a two-week guidance service trial last year, and automatic drop-off pods for suitcases.

Panasonic recently tested a robot at a Japanese convenience store that scans and bags groceries.

Last year, Japan-based WHILL, founded in 2013 by engineers from Nissan, Olympus and Sony, received U.S. FDA approval for its Model M wheelchair, clearing it for coverage in insurance programs. The WHILL NEXT is a research model equipped with Panasonic anti-collision features.

“By deploying WHILL in airports and commercial facilities, I’d like to broaden the range of WHILL users so that anyone can use it with confidence,” says Muneaki Fukuoka, chief technology officer of WHILL.

Like many large Japanese manufacturers, Panasonic has developed a variety of robotic solutions in recent years, including a shopping checkout machine that automatically scans and bags items, the Rulo robot vacuum cleaner, as well as a power-assist exoskeleton by Activelink.

Panasonic also created the Hospi delivery robot, a mobile platform that has been delivering medication from dispensaries to nursing stations in hospitals in Japan and Singapore. Hospi was also demoed at the Tokyo event, and trundled around the stage offering drinks with an English voice. Like the luggage bots, Hospi might also be greeting visitors at airports in 2020. Panasonic may enhance it with the ability to approach people proactively, a spokesman said.