Title:
Automatic feeding system
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
The present invention provides a feeding system suitable for mounting to a wheelchair and usable for individuals who have limited or no use of their hands. The system includes a housing that stores food product, and delivers the food product to a transfer mechanism. The transfer mechanism delivers the food product to a serving assembly that is positioned at a location proximal the user's mouth for consumption.



Inventors:
Frank, Michael T. (Tucson, AZ, US)
Filipa, Jonathan A. (Madison, WI, US)
Waldman, John O. (Madison, WI, US)
Krull, Timothy T. (West Bend, WI, US)
Application Number:
11/110439
Publication Date:
10/20/2005
Filing Date:
04/20/2005
Primary Class:
International Classes:
A47G21/00; A47G21/08; (IPC1-7): A47G21/00
View Patent Images:



Primary Examiner:
KUMAR, RAKESH
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
WARF/MKE/QUARLES & BRADY LLP (MILWAUKEE, WI, US)
Claims:
1. A feeding system for individuals seated in a wheelchair, the system comprising: a housing having an open end for dispensing food product; a transfer mechanism operable to drive the food product towards the open end; a serving assembly disposed proximal the open end receiving food product from the housing; and a mounting assembly supporting the housing, the transfer mechanism, and the serving assembly in a predetermined position relative to the wheelchair.

2. The feeding system as recited in claim 1, further comprising a switch in electrical communication with the transfer mechanism, wherein the switch is operable to selectively operate the transfer mechanism.

3. The feeding system as recited in claim 2, wherein the switch is configured to be mounted onto the wheelchair and depressible by a human head.

4. The feeding system as recited in claim 1, wherein the housing comprises: a hopper having an inlet end for receiving food product; and a conduit in communication with the hopper having an inlet end for receiving the food product from the hopper.

5. The feeding system as recited in claim 4, wherein the transfer mechanism is operable to drive the food product from the inlet end of the conduit towards the open end.

6. The feeding system as recited in claim 4, wherein the transfer mechanism comprises a rotating auger disposed in the conduit.

7. The feeding system as recited in claim 1, further comprising a linkage that is pivotally connected to the housing and movably connects the serving assembly to the housing.

8. The feeding system as recited in claim 7, wherein the serving assembly further comprises a receptacle rotatably mounted to the linkage.

9. The feeding system as recited in claim 1, wherein the mounting assembly comprises a first linkage extending generally upwards from the wheelchair and a second linkage extending generally forward from the first linkage.

10. The feeding system as recited in claim 9, wherein the first and second linkages are connected to each other by a bracket that is mountable on the first linkage at variable positions to determine a height of the serving assembly.

11. The feeding system as recited in claim 9, wherein the first and second linkages are connected to each other by a bracket that is mountable on the second linkage at variable positions to determine a forward location of the serving assembly.

12. A method for fabricating a feeding system operable to deliver food to an individual seated in a wheelchair, the steps comprising: (A) providing a housing having an open end for dispensing food product; (B) providing a transfer mechanism for delivering food product towards the open end; (C) providing a serving assembly proximal the open end for receiving food product from the housing; and (D) supporting the housing, the transfer mechanism, and the serving assembly in a predetermined position relative to a wheelchair with a mounting assembly.

13. The method as recited in claim 12, further comprising (E) providing a switch for selectively operating the transfer mechanism.

14. The method as recited in claim 13, further comprising the step of mounting the switch onto the wheelchair so as to be depressible by a human head.

15. The method as recited in claim 12, wherein step (A) further comprises: providing a hopper having an inlet end for receiving food product and an outlet end for dispensing the food product; and providing a conduit in communication with the hopper and having an inlet end for receiving the food product from the hopper, wherein the conduit defines the open end for dispensing the food product from the housing;

16. The method as recited in claim 12, wherein step (C) further comprises pivotally mounting the serving assembly to the conduit.

17. The method as recited in claim 12, wherein step (D) further comprises connecting the conduit to the mounting assembly so that the housing is translatable in forward and backward directions.

18. The method as recited in claim 12, wherein step (D) further comprises supporting the serving assembly with a linkage having an adjustable height to adjust the height of the serving assembly.

19. A method for delivering food to an individual seated in a wheelchair using a feeding system of the type including 1) a housing having a open end for dispensing food product, 2) a transfer mechanism operable to drive the food product towards the open end, and 3) a serving assembly disposed proximal the open end and receiving food product from the housing, the steps comprising: (A) delivering food product into the housing; (B) positioning the serving assembly to a location accessible to the individual; and (C) activating the transfer mechanism to deliver the food product to the serving assembly.

20. The method as recited in claim 19, wherein the housing further comprises 1) a hopper having an inlet end for receiving food product and an outlet end for dispensing the food product; 2) a conduit in communication with the housing having an inlet end for receiving the food product from the hopper, wherein the conduit defines the open end for dispensing the food product from the housing, wherein step (A) further comprises delivering the food product into the inlet end of the hopper.

21. The method as recited in claim 19, wherein step (B) further comprises pivoting the serving assembly relative to the housing.

22. The method as recited in claim 19, wherein step (C) further comprises actuating a switch to activate the transfer assembly.

Description:

CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

This claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application Ser. No. 60/563,732 filed Apr. 20, 2004, the disclosure of which is hereby incorporated by reference as if set forth in its entirety herein.

STATEMENT REGARDING FEDERALLY SPONSORED RESEARCH OR DEVELOPMENT

Not Applicable.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

The present invention relates to feeding systems and, in particular, relates to an automatic feeding system operable to feed a handicapped individual seated in a wheelchair.

Approximately a half million people in the United States suffer from spinal cord injuries, roughly half of whom are quadriplegics. This disability, and numerous others, also limit people to wheelchairs. While such individuals are necessarily dependent upon others for certain daily activities, it has been an ongoing objective to provide them with as much independence as possible. Wheelchair technology, for instance, has been improved in recent years to enable quadriplegics to travel independently.

Unfortunately, the freedom afforded by wheelchairs is significantly hampered by the dependence that the user has on others for feeding, even when the user merely desires a snack. In particular, wheelchair bound individuals have conventionally been required to return from whatever activity he or she is participating in to solicit the feeding assistance of others. The assistance typically involves obtaining and preparing the food for consumption, and serving and feeding the prepared food to the individual.

Feeding systems have been developed that can be attached to a wheelchair to assist with feeding. For instance, one system provides a spoon that is supported by an articulated arm. The user can control the arm using a switch that is activated using his or her chin, or by using a rocker switch that can be actuated using other parts of the body, such as hands, shoulders, hips, or knees. Specifically, actuating the switch in one direction will cause the spoon to lower and receive food from an underlying plate. The spoon is then lifted to an area proximal the user's mouth for food consumption.

Unfortunately, while the device is useful for feeding the user, it is only useful for one sitting at a time. Accordingly, while the user feels additional independence while eating, the user must still solicit the assistance of another to prepare plates of food throughout the day. The device thus does not allow the user to independently snack at a time of his or her choosing. Furthermore, the device is only useful for food products that are compatible with a spoon, and would not lend itself easily to certain snack foods, such as popcorn and the like.

It would therefore be desirable to provide a feeding system that enables a wheelchair user to retrieve, serve, and eat a desired food product on-demand, with minimal or no assistance of others.

BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

In one aspect the invention provides a feeding system for wheelchair bound individuals. The system includes a housing having an open end for dispensing a food product. A transfer mechanism is provided that is operable to drive the food product towards the open end. A serving assembly is disposed proximal the open end and receives food product from the housing. A mounting assembly supports the housing, the transfer mechanism, and the serving assembly in a predetermined position relative to a wheelchair.

The foregoing and other aspects of the invention will appear from the following description. In the description, reference is made to the accompanying drawings which form a part hereof, and in which there is shown by way of illustration, and not limitation, a preferred embodiment of the invention. Such embodiment does not necessarily represent the full scope of the invention, however, and reference must therefore be made to the claims herein for interpreting the scope of the invention.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

Reference is hereby made to the following figures in which like reference numerals correspond to like elements throughout, and in which:

FIG. 1 is a perspective view of a feeding system constructed in accordance with the preferred embodiment of the invention;

FIG. 2 is a side elevation view of a user seated in a wheelchair supporting the feeding system illustrated in FIG. 1;

FIG. 3 is a side elevation view of the feeding system illustrated in FIG. 1 having a section cut away to illustrate a food transfer assembly.

FIG. 4 is an end elevation view of the feeding system illustrated in FIG. 1;

FIG. 5 is a side elevation view of a serving assembly; and

FIG. 6 is a top plan view of a feeding system constructed in accordance with an alternate embodiment.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENT

Referring to FIGS. 1-2, an automatic feeding system 20 is provided for feeding an individual 22 seated in a wheelchair 24, and is particularly useful for delivering food to quadriplegics or other individuals who have limited or no use of their hands and arms. The delivery system 20 extends substantially forward with respect to the direction of wheelchair travel, and includes a serving assembly 26 that delivers food to the user's mouth, a housing 28 for storing and delivering food to the serving assembly, and a transfer mechanism 30 that drives food from the housing to the serving assembly 26. The elements of the serving assembly 26, housing 28, and transfer mechanism 30 that come into contact with food product are preferably formed from any suitable polymer (or other suitable material) approved by the Food and Drug Administration for safe food handling and consumption. A mounting assembly 32 is provided that attaches to a wheelchair and fixes the serving assembly 26, housing 28, and transfer mechanism 30 in a predetermined location relative to each other and the wheelchair 24. The components of feeding system 20 will now be described in greater detail.

1. The Housing

Referring also to FIG. 3, housing 28 includes a generally rectangular hopper 31 having opposing elongated side walls 34 that are connected at their forward and rear edges to opposing front and rear end walls 35 and 36, respectively, to define an internal chamber 38. Chamber 38 defines an upper inlet end 37 for receiving food product, and a lower outlet end 40 for delivering food product. A cover (not shown) could be provided and hingedly attached to the upper edge of either side wall 34 or end walls 35 and 36 to open the inlet 37 when delivering food, and to subsequently close the inlet 37. Chamber 38 is advantageously sized sufficiently large to retain a daily supply of food product.

Front end wall 35 is generally rectangular and vertically elongated, and defines an arched lower end 41 defining a semi-circular cut out. Rear end wall 36 is also generally rectangular and vertically elongated, and defines a lower flange 44 that extends laterally outwardly and downwardly with respect to side walls 34.

The lower ends of walls 34 and front end wall 35 are integrally connected to a generally cylindrical conduit 42 that is substantially horizontally oriented, and extends substantially parallel to side walls 34. Conduit 42 defines a rearward disposed portion 46 that abuts the forward surface of flange 44, and is in vertical alignment with hopper 31. Rear portion 46 is further integrally connected to the bottom of side walls 34 and front end wall 35. Rear portion 46 is open at its upper end, and is therefore in communication with the hopper 31 for receiving food from chamber 38.

Conduit 42 further defines a forward portion 48 disposed forward from hopper 31. The forward end of conduit 42 is connected to a spout 50 that receives food from the conduit and delivers the food to serving assembly 26. In particular, the rear end of spout 50 is connected to an annular collar 52 that fits over the spout and frictionally engages the forward end of conduit 42. Alternatively, collar 52 can be threaded and rotatable with respect to mating threads on conduit 42. Spout 50 extends forward from conduit 42, and presents a forward end 54 that is bent laterally inwardly with respect to the user 22. Forward end 54 defines an opening 55 that provides a food discharge outlet. Forward end 54 can either be bent 90° as illustrated in FIG. 1-3, or can alternatively be bent at any angle less than 90° as illustrated in FIG. 4.

2. The Serving Assembly

Referring also to FIG. 4, serving assembly 26 includes a support member 66 that retains a receptacle 68, such as a conventional plate or dish, capable of holding food for consumption by the user. Receptacle 68 is connected to the bent forward end 54 of spout 50 via a bracket 56 that presents a lower mounting pad 58 and an upper mounting pad 60. Mounting pads 58 and 60 are connected to spacer arms 63 that extend outwardly from the corresponding pad and are, in turn, connected at their outer ends to an elongated connecting arm 65. Spacer arms 63 are sufficiently long to avoid interference between connecting arm 65 and receptacle 68.

An aperture extends through the upper mounting pad 60 and is laterally aligned with a corresponding aperture extending through forward end 54. A screw 62 extends through the mating apertures and is fastened by a nut 64. Bracket 56 is thus rotatable along the direction of Arrow A, about an axis A-A that extends orthogonal to forward end 54 at the location of the mounting aperture. The nut 64 is tightened sufficiently to prevent free rotation of bracket 56, but not too tight so as to prevent intentional rotation of the bracket when desired by the user 22.

Support member 66 includes a body 70 made of a flexible rubber or other suitably compliant material, and provides a suction force against the lower surface of receptacle 68. A base 72 extends downwardly from the body 70, and defines a threaded aperture that is laterally aligned with a corresponding aperture extending through lower mounting pad 58. A screw extends inwardly from the mounting pad 58 into the threaded aperture of base 72. Accordingly, receptacle 68 is rotatable with respect to bracket 56 about an axis B-B that extends orthogonal to the mounting pad 58 (See FIG. 1).

Advantageously, during operation, the user 22 can engage serving assembly 26 with his or her chin and jaw, and rotate bracket 56 about axis A-A to translate receptacle 68 in a direction orthogonal to axis A-A. Accordingly, if forward end 54 is bent at 90°, receptacle 68 travels laterally with respect to the user. Alternatively, if forward end 54 is bent at an actual angle less than 90°, the difference between the actual angle and 90° defines the degree to which the receptacle 68 is translated forward and back along the direction of Arrow B when bracket 56 is rotated about axis A-A, as illustrated in FIG. 6. It is further advantageous that, while bracket 56 is rotated about axis A-A, receptacle 68 can be rotated about axis B-B in the direction of Arrow C to maintain the receptacle in a substantially horizontal orientation, as illustrated in FIG. 5. The user is thus able to move the receptacle 68 away from his or her face when not eating, and can further move the receptacle 68 towards his or her mouth when it is desirable to begin food delivery.

It should be appreciated that alternative connections can be achieved between bracket 56 and forward end 54, and bracket 56 and support member 66 that enable selective relative rotation. Such alternatives are intended to fall within the scope of the present invention. It should be further appreciated that alternative mechanical connections can be achieved between the support member 66 and receptacle 68, and such alternatives are intended to fall within the scope of the present invention. Alternatively still, support member 66 and receptacle 68 can be combined into a single integral assembly.

3. The Transfer Mechanism

Referring again to FIGS. 1-3, transfer mechanism 30 includes a motor housing 74 that is mounted onto the rear face of a laterally extending mounting plate 76 via any suitable connection well known in the art. Motor housing 74 retains a conventional motor that can be either battery powered, or electrically connected to the power source of the wheelchair 24. A pair of spacer members 78 extends between the laterally outer ends of the rear face of flange 44 and the laterally outer ends of the front face of mounting plate 76. A pair of screws 80 extends through the upper and lower ends of each laterally outer end of the mounting plate 76, spacer members 78, and flange 44. The screws 80 are fastened by corresponding nuts 82 to connect the motor housing 74 to housing 28.

A rotatable drive shaft 83 extends forward from the motor, and extends forward of mounting plate 76. A shaft 84 extends from a location forward of mounting plate through an aperture 86 formed in flange 44 and into rear portion 46 of conduit 42. Shaft 84 is connected to drive shaft 83 via a key 85 that can be removed when it is desired to remove shaft 84 (e.g., for cleaning purposes). A roller bearing 88 is seated in aperture 86 to facilitate rotation of shaft 84 during operation of the motor. An elongated helical blade 90 extends radially outward from shaft 84 to provide an auger that rotates to translate food product from forward portion 46 to spout 50, and onto serving assembly 26. The motor is preferably sufficiently slow (e.g., only a few RPM) to enable food delivery to be precisely metered, and to avoid spillage.

The motor is electrically connected to an actuator 92 that includes a cylindrical outer wall 94 closed at its front and rear ends by end walls 96 and 98, respectively. Rear wall 98 is adhesively or otherwise mounted onto the headrest 100 of wheelchair 24, while front wall 96 extends forward towards the user's head. Front wall 96 is preferably formed from a plastic or other suitably compliant, yet strong, material to provide comfort and functionality during operation. Actuator 92 may be padded for enhanced comfort, and houses an On/Off switch that is actuated when the user 24 tilts his or her head back to depress front wall 96. Preferably, once front wall 96 is depressed to turn the motor on, the motor remains on until front wall 96 is again depressed to stop the rotation of shaft 84. It should be appreciated that any suitable actuator can be provided and mounted at any location on a wheelchair that provides the user with easy access to selectively supply power to the motor. For instance, actuator 92 could be chin or jaw-operated.

4. The Mounting Assembly

Mounting assembly 32 includes a lower C-clamp 102 having opposing walls 104 that are spaced apart a predetermined distance. A bar, or other suitable member, such as the bar 106 typically disposed behind the headrest 100 can thus fit between the walls 104. A pair of locking screws 108 extends through one of the walls 104, and can be tightened against the bar 106 to fasten mounting assembly 32 onto wheelchair 24. Clamp 102 includes an upwardly extending flange 110 that receives a pair of screws 116 that extend into the lower end of a vertically extending square arm 114. A plurality of laterally displaced perforations 112 extend laterally through arm 114 and receive screws 116. Mounting assembly 32 is preferably connected to bar 106 at a location substantially aligned with the user's shoulder. Accordingly, spout 50 extends inward, and receptacle 68 can be actuated inward towards the users mouth during use without interference between the mounting assembly 32 and the user's head.

A second, horizontally extending, square arm 118 extends forward from the upper end of vertical arm 114, and is connected to arm 114 via an angle bracket 120. Angle bracket 120 includes a first wall 122 mounted to the upper end of vertical arm 114 via screws extending through the wall 122 and perforations 112. Bracket 120 includes a second wall 124 extending forward and aligned with the rear end of horizontal arm 118. Arm 118 defines a plurality of forward spaced, vertically extending perforations 126. The rear end of horizontal arm 118 is mounted onto wall 124 via a pair of screws 128 that extend through perforations 126 and through wall 124 of bracket 120.

The present invention recognizes that the seatback 101 of a wheelchair 24 is typically reclined during use. Accordingly, first and second walls 122 and 124 form an acute angle to maintain the feeding system 20 in a substantially horizontal orientation while the user 22 is seated in the wheelchair 24. It should be appreciated that first wall 122 can be mounted at any location along vertical arm 114 via perforations 112 to adjust the height of system 20. Furthermore, second wall 124 can be mounted at any location along horizontal arm 118 via perforations 126 to correspondingly adjust the forward position of serving assembly 26.

A substantially semi-cylindrical collar 130 surrounds lower semi-circular portion of conduit 42 and has distal ends that terminate at hopper 31. A neck 132 extends downwardly from collar 130 and is mechanically fastened to the upper end of a bracket 134 via a screw 133. Advantageously, screw 133 can be loosened to rotate feeding system 20 about the screw to maintain a substantially horizontal orientation. The lower end of bracket 134 is connected to the forward end of horizontal arm via laterally extending screws 135. In accordance with an alternate embodiment, collar 130 can be slidably mounted onto conduit 142 to facilitate forward positional adjustments for serving assembly 26. It should be appreciated that numerous alternative assemblies are available for fixing the relative position of the delivery system components relative to each other and to the user. For instance, a mounting assembly could connect certain components directly to the wheelchair 24 instead of supporting all components on a single mounting assembly 32. Additionally, mounting assembly 32 can include a plurality of swivel joints that can be tightened using a wing nut in the conventional manner. The swivel joints provide compliance that enables assembly 32 to be mounted to wheelchair frames at other locations than support BAR 106 (particularly useful for wheelchairs that do not include a support beam as illustrated). All such alternatives are intended to fall within the scope of the present invention.

5. Operation of Feeding System

During operation, the user 22 solicits the assistance of another to deliver the chosen food product into the chamber 38. The angle, height, and forward extension of the feeding system 20 can also be adjusted as desired. The user 22 is then free to go about his or her daily activities with a reserve of food available for consumption throughout the day, or until the next meal without assistance. When the user 22 becomes desirous of the food stored in hopper 31, he or she actuates the serving assembly 26 with his or her chin, such that receptacle 68 is positioned close to the user's mouth. The user 22 then tilts his or her head back against the front surface 96 of actuator 92, and activates the internal switch to begin rotation of shaft 84 and the corresponding auger blade 90.

Rotation of shaft 84 causes food product contained between helical windings of blade 90 to translate forward towards the spout 50, out the open end 55, and onto receptacle 68, which is advantageously positioned proximal the user's mouth for easy consumption. As food is displaced from the conduit 42 via blade 90, additional food enters the conduit from hopper 31 under gravitational forces. Once a sufficient amount of food has been delivered to receptacle 68, the switch is again depressed to discontinue power to the motor. Advantageously, because the diameter of helical blade 90 is only slightly less than the internal diameter of conduit 42, the blade prevents additional food from being delivered once operation of the motor has been discontinued.

Advantageously, the housing 28 and shaft 84 (including blade 90), and receptacle 68 can be easily removed from the remaining components of feeding assembly 20 for cleaning. Specifically, to remove housing 28 and shaft 84, screws 80 first are removed to disconnect housing 28 from transfer assembly 30. The spacer walls 78 are then removed to provide access to key 85, which is removed to disconnect shaft 84 from drive shaft 83. Next, screw 133 is removed from bracket 134 to release the housing 28 from mounting assembly 32. Housing 28 and serving assembly 26 can then be lifted away from the remaining components of feeding assembly 20. If desired, bracket 56 can be removed from spout 50. The inner surfaces of hopper 31 and conduit 42, including the shaft 84 and blade 90, are then easily accessible for cleaning. In accordance with an alternate embodiment, hopper 31 can be mechanically fastened to, and hence removable from, conduit 42 to enable the hopper and conduit to be cleaned in a conventional dishwasher.

The invention has been described in connection with what are presently considered to be the most practical and preferred embodiments. However, the present invention has been presented by way of illustration and is not intended to be limited to the disclosed embodiments. Accordingly, those skilled in the art will realize that the invention is intended to encompass all modifications and alternative arrangements included within the spirit and scope of the invention, as set forth by the appended claims.