Title:
Electronic deployment system and method for inflating a flotation device
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
An inflatable flotation device mounted to a craft is provided. The device comprises an electronic deployment system for activating inflation of the flotation device. A method for inflating a flotation device mounted to a craft is also provided. The method comprises electrically activating the flotation device with a control system. The present invention further includes a two level switching mechanism providing a first alert level and a second alert level prior to deployment of the flotation device.



Inventors:
Braitberg, Michael (Boulder, CO, US)
Application Number:
10/968397
Publication Date:
01/26/2006
Filing Date:
10/19/2004
Primary Class:
International Classes:
B63B43/02; B63B43/12; B63B43/14; B60C
View Patent Images:
Related US Applications:
20090126615Moring cleatMay, 2009Strong
20040200398SubmarineOctober, 2004Goesmann et al.
20090305584SEMI-SUBMERGED PROPELLER PROPULSION SYSTEM OF DISPLACEMENT AND SEMI-DISPLACEMENT CRAFTSDecember, 2009Acampora et al.
20080229995BOOM SYSTEM FOR ENCIRCLING VESSELSeptember, 2008Dreyer et al.
20020062778Dimpled marine seismic cablesMay, 2002Barker
20080121164PROPULSION SYSTEMMay, 2008Jaubert
20050241561Multi purpose marine anchorNovember, 2005Ruter
20040011273Forward visual loading guideJanuary, 2004Gorbutt
20060027156Flexible keel and fiting thereforFebruary, 2006Jenkins
20090283024Battery Keel System and MethodNovember, 2009Robertson
20090211511Multiplex-Thruster Systems for Delivering Thrusting FlowAugust, 2009Shen



Primary Examiner:
SOTELO, JESUS D
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
EMERY L. TRACY (Boulder, CO, US)
Claims:
What is claimed is:

1. An inflatable flotation device mounted to a craft, the inflatable flotation device comprising: a self-testing electronic deployment system for testing system integrity and activating inflation of the flotation device.

2. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system automatically activates inflation upon a predetermined amount of water entering the craft.

3. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system activates inflation upon manual input.

4. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system performs a self-test upon powering of the electronic deployment system.

5. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system periodically performs a self-test at predetermined time intervals.

6. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 and further comprising: at least one sensor mounted to the craft and connected to the electronic deployment system, each sensor detecting presence of water within the craft.

7. The inflatable flotation device of claim 6 wherein multiple water level intrusion sensors are positioned about the craft for detecting water at various positions within the craft.

8. The inflatable flotation device of claim 7 wherein the electronic deployment system performs self-testing on each of the water level intrusion sensors.

9. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein each flotation device includes a flotation device integrity sensor.

10. The inflatable flotation device of claim 9 wherein the flotation device integrity sensor includes an air pressure tube mechanism having a first pressure switch and a second pressure switch.

11. The inflatable flotation device of claim 10 wherein upon a predetermined amount of water entering the tube, the first pressure switch activates and provides a warning alert.

12. The inflatable flotation device of claim 10 wherein upon a predetermined amount of water entering the tube, the second pressure switch activates and deploys the flotation device.

13. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system performs self-testing on a backup battery system.

14. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system performs self-testing on deployment tank pressure.

15. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system performs self-testing on sensor wiring integrity.

16. The inflatable flotation device of claim 1 wherein the electronic deployment system performs self-testing on various components of the electronic deployment system which can be overridden if any component of the self-testing fails.

17. A method for inflating a flotation device mounted to a craft, the method comprising: providing an electronic deployment system; self-testing components of the electronic deployment system upon powering of the electronic deployment system; periodically self-testing the components of the electronic deployment system; and activating the flotation device with the electronic deployment system.

18. The method of claim 17 and further comprising: automatically activating the flotation device upon a predetermined amount of water entering the craft.

19. The method of claim 17 and further comprising: manually activating the flotation device.

20. The method of claim 17 and further comprising: mounting at least one water level intrusion sensor to the craft; and connecting each system to the electronic deployment system.

21. The method of claim 17 and further comprising: providing a warning alert upon a predetermined amount of water entering the craft.

22. The method of claim 17 and further comprising: activating the flotation device upon a predetermined amount of water entering the craft.

23. An inflatable flotation device mounted to a craft, the device comprising: a two level switching mechanism having a first switch device and a second switch device, the first switch device providing a first alert level and the second switch device deploying the flotation device.

24. The inflatable flotation device of claim 23 and further comprising: a self-testing electronic deployment system connected to the two level switching mechanism for self-testing components of the flotation device and self-testing and activating the two level switching mechanism.

25. The inflatable flotation device of claim 24 wherein the electronic deployment system performs a self-test of the components upon powering of the electronic deployment system.

26. The inflatable flotation device of claim 24 wherein the electronic deployment system periodically performs a self-test of the components at predetermined time intervals.

27. The inflatable flotation device of claim 24 wherein the components include at least one water level intrusion sensor mounted to the craft and connected to the electronic deployment system, each sensor detecting water within the craft.

28. The inflatable flotation device of claim 27 wherein multiple water level intrusion sensors are positioned about the craft to detect water at various positions within the craft.

29. The inflatable flotation device of claim 23 wherein the two level switching mechanism includes an air pressure tube mechanism having a first pressure switch and a second pressure switch.

30. The inflatable flotation device of claim 23 wherein the first switch device deploys the flotation device bypassing the second switch device.

31. A method for inflating a flotation device mounted to a craft, the method comprising: providing an electronic deployment system; mounting at least one flotation device integrity sensor to the electronic deployment system; determining integrity of each of the flotation device integrity sensors; and mapping and determining defective flotation devices prior to inflation of each of the flotation devices.

32. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: mapping the defective flotation devices with an algorithm.

33. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: deploying the flotation devices in a symmetrical fashion.

34. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: periodically self-testing the flotation device integrity sensors.

35. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: manually activating the flotation device.

36. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: mounting at least one water level intrusion sensor to the craft; and connecting each system to the electronic deployment system.

37. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: providing a warning alert upon a predetermined amount of water entering the craft.

38. The method of claim 31 and further comprising: activating the flotation device upon a predetermined amount of water entering the craft.

39. An inflatable flotation device mounted to a craft, the inflatable flotation device comprising: an electronic deployment system for activating inflation of the flotation device.

Description:

The present application is a continuation of pending provisional patent application Ser. No. 60/514,358, filed on Oct. 24, 2003, entitled “Inflating Watercraft Flotation Device”.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

1. Field of the Invention

The present invention relates to a system and method for inflating a flotation device and, more particularly, it relates to an electronic deployment system and method for inflating a flotation device providing sensor self-testing for system integrity and multiple sensor algorithms for mapping defective sensors.

2. Description of the Prior Art

Boating is both a popular pastime and a vital commercial activity in much of the world today. A watercraft is often a substantial investment for the owner and/or operator. In the case of commercial boats, the boat is often the livelihood of the owner of the watercraft. As a general concept, watercrafts sink when the hull of the watercraft takes on water and the watercraft loses its buoyancy. This can happen if the hull is breached due to a collision with some object or in heavy waves if the watercraft is swamped. If the watercraft sinks, a serious condition exists in that loss of life and loss of property often occurs.

A flotation device can solve these problems by inflating as the watercraft begins to sink. Once deployed, the flotation devices will keep the watercraft afloat even if a complete flooding of the hull has occurred.

Unfortunately, however, flotation devices in the past have used a mechanical float switch valve for determining whether water has entered the watercraft and for deploying the flotation device. Not only are these mechanical valves oftentimes expensive and complex, prior to leaving the safety of the dock, an operator may want to test the deployment system to determine integrity and reliability. With mechanical valves, however, difficulty in testing due to their location on the craft and incompatibility with remote diagnostics leaves the operator uncertain whether sensing and deployment are guaranteed.

The primary aspect of the present invention is to provide an electronic deployment system and method for deploying a flotation device to keep the watercraft floating after water has partially or completely filled the hull of the watercraft.

Another aspect of the present invention is to provide an electronic deployment system and method for deploying a flotation device that has integrity self-testing prior to departure and periodically throughout operation of the craft.

Still another aspect of the present invention is to provide an electronic deployment system and method for deploying a flotation device which uses multiple sensor algorithms to map defective sensors and flotation devices.

Still yet another aspect of the present invention is to provide an electronic deployment system and method for deploying a flotation device which has two level switching for (1) alerting an operator of water entering the craft and (2) deploying the flotation device.

SUMMARY

The present invention is an inflatable flotation device mounted to a craft. The device comprises an electronic deployment system for activating inflation of the flotation device.

In addition, the present invention includes a method for inflating a flotation device mounted to a craft. The method comprises electrically activating the flotation device with an electrically operated gas valve using a control system.

The present invention further includes an inflatable flotation device mounted to a craft. The inflatable flotation device preferably comprises a two level switching mechanism having a first switch device and a second switch device with the first switch device providing a first alert level and the second switch device providing a second alert level prior to deployment of the flotation device.

Further yet, the present invention includes a method for inflating a flotation device mounted to a craft. The method comprises providing an electronic deployment system, mounting at least one flotation device integrity sensor to the electronic deployment system, determining integrity of each of the flotation device integrity sensors, and mapping and determining defective flotation devices prior to inflation of each of the flotation devices.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1 is a schematic view illustrating an electronic deployment system for inflating a flotation device, constructed in accordance with the present invention;

FIG. 2 is a schematic view illustrating a flotation device integrity sensor for each inflating flotation device of the electronic deployment system, constructed in accordance with the present invention;

FIG. 3 is a perspective view illustrating the electronic deployment system for inflating a flotation device, constructed in accordance with the present invention, with the flotation device being in the non-inflated condition;

FIG. 4 is a perspective view illustrating the electronic deployment system for inflating a flotation device, constructed in accordance with the present invention, with the flotation device being in the inflated condition;

FIG. 5 is a flow chart illustrating the self-test method for the electronic deployment system, constructed in accordance with the present invention; and

FIG. 6 is a flow chart illustrating the active state of the electronic deployment system, constructed in accordance with the present invention.

Before explaining the disclosed embodiment of the present invention in detail, it is to be understood that the invention is not limited in its application to the details of the particular arrangement shown, since the invention is capable of other embodiments. Also, the terminology used herein is for the purpose of description and not of limitation.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS

As illustrated in FIGS. 1-6, the present invention is an electronic deployment system, indicated generally at 10, and a method for activating inflation of at least one flotation device 12 (as best illustrated in FIGS. 3 and 4). The flotation device 12 of the present invention can be any type of flotation device designed and constructed for maintaining a craft (not shown) in a floating and/or stable and/or generally upright condition upon the occurrence of a predetermined event such as flooding, damage, loss of stability or upright condition, and/or high seas.

Preferably, the flotation device 12 is mounted to the craft and activates, either manually or automatically, to maintain the craft in a floating condition during the occurrence of the predetermined event. The craft can be any type of craft including, but not limited to, pleasure boats, commercial ships, military ships, cruise ships, power boats, row boats, canoes, life boats, rafts, pontoon boats, ski boats, jet skis, airplanes, water bound equipment or containers, oil rigs, etc. The flotation device 12 is positionable and inflatable upon the craft when water enters the craft thereby increasing stability and inhibiting sinking.

In the case of watercraft, the flotation device 12 is preferably mounted on the exterior of the hull of the watercraft at approximately the water line. Preferably, the flotation device 12 has a low profile and an unobtrusive visual presence, so that the flotation device 12 does not significantly affect either the aerodynamic or visual lines of the watercraft when not inflated, as described in further detail below. A type of flotation device 12 can be found in U.S. Pat. No. 6,802,274, issued on Oct. 12, 2004, and assigned to the same assignee of the present invention.

The activation of the flotation device 12 of the present invention is preferably accomplished with the electronic deployment system 10 with self-test. The electronic deployment system 10 automatically or manually deploys the flotation device 12 when the water level within the hull reaches a predetermined level. A control panel 13 on the electronic deployment system 10 allows an operator to control the operation of the electronic deployment system 10.

As discussed further below, the electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention preferably uses multiple water level intrusion sensors 14 in case the craft experiences pitch or roll while flooding or flooded; may perform a confidence test periodically and/or on demand to assure that the electronic deployment system 10 is operational. In addition, the electronic deployment system 10 is a test system which does not compromise the integrity of the system 10 by inserting additional test elements into the system which could increase the probability of system failures. The electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention uses electronic sensors and a simple microprocessor control system meets these requirements. The electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention is easily installed in existing crafts without extensive mechanical modifications.

The electronic deployment system 10 and method for self-testing and arming the flotation device 12 will now be described. It will be understood by those skilled in the art that the following description is just one manner of self-testing of the electronic deployment system 10 and arming the flotation device 12 and that other methods are within the scope of the present invention.

As illustrated in FIG. 5, the self-test state of the electronic deployment system 10 will be described. The electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention is powered on using any available source of power on the craft. In the present embodiment, the power source is a self-contained battery on the craft, although any available power source is within the scope of the present invention. Once the electronic deployment system 10 is powered, the electronic deployment system 10 will run through a variety of self-tests to determine the status and operational ability of the electronic deployment system 10. First, the internal diagnostics 40 of the electronic deployment system 10 are checked for failure. If the internal diagnostics 40 fail, the failure is displayed to the operator and the flotation device is not armed.

Next, the backup battery 16 is checked, the gas valve 42 is checked, the flotation device deployment tank pressure 18 is checked, the sensor wiring integrity 20 is checked, the water level intrusion sensors 14 are checked, and the manifold and flotation device sensors 48 are checked for leak downs, etc. If any of these tests fail, the failure is logged, routed through a control processor 44, and reported to the operator by a display screen 23 or the like. If the tests determine that the components of the electronic deployment system 10 are operational, then the flotation device 12 will arm.

The electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention uses multiple water level intrusion sensors 14 throughout the watercraft in case the watercraft experiences pitch or roll while undergoing flooding. Each of these water level intrusion sensors 14 is self-tested independently of each other. The water level intrusion sensors 14 of the present invention allow self-test of the water level intrusion sensors 14 prior to departure and periodically throughout the voyage. Mechanical sensors and switches are not adaptable or conducive to self-testing. An example of a mechanical float sensor can be found in U.S. Pat. No. 6,435,125, issued on Aug. 20, 2002, and assigned to the same assignee of the present invention. Other sensors and switches which can be used with the present invention include, but are not limited to, conductivity, ultrasonic, capacitive, e-fields, silicon, etc.

As illustrated in FIG. 2, the water level intrusion sensors 14 include a single air pressure tube 24 for providing two switches 26, 28. As a test pressure is injected into the pressure tube 24, either periodically or on demand, the electronic deployment system 10 will determine the amount of back pressure against the first valve 26 and the second valve 28. If the pressure tube 24 becomes clogged with debris or other object, then the bleed down time of the pressure can be determined so that the clog can be removed.

In an embodiment of the present invention, the electronic deployment system 10 includes flotation device integrity sensors 48 for self-testing the pressure within each flotation device 12 prior to inflation. The flotation device integrity sensors 48 test for flotation device pressure and rupture pressure to determine imminent partial or total failure of the flotation devices 12. With these flotation device integrity sensors 48, an operator will know whether the integrity of any of the flotation devices 12 has been compromised when inflated.

In some embodiments, the operator can manually or electronically deactivate other flotation devices 12 to compensate for any failed flotation devices 12. This allows an operator to have more confidence in which flotation devices 12 will trigger upon deployment to maintain, if desired, a corresponding number of flotation devices 12 activated for each side of the craft thereby adding further stability to the craft when the flotation devices 12 are inflated.

The electronic deployment system 10 includes a mapping function of the signals to map out defective flotation device integrity sensors 48 in a symmetrical fashion If one or more of the flotation device integrity sensors 48 fail the pressure test, the electronic deployment system 10 evaluates each sensor state and determines whether the flotation device 12 is armed through the self-test, as described above.

As described above, with each self-test cycle, the electronic deployment system 10 will display or otherwise alert the operator of the results of each test. If the self-test of the electronic deployment system 10 indicates partial or repairable failures, the operator will have the option to override the test and arm the flotation device 12 through a manual bypass 30, as will be described in more detail below. If the operator determines not to override the electronic deployment system 10, the flotation device 12 will not arm and those failing components can be either repaired or replaced.

As illustrated in FIG. 6, the active state of the electronic deployment system 10 will be described. The electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention includes two-level switching prior to deployment of the flotation devices 12. At a predetermined water level, level 1 has been reached and the electronic deployment system 10 will provide an audible and/or visual alert 56 or other electronic communication to the operator or other party. When a second predetermined higher water level is detected, level 2 has been reached and the gas release valve 42 will open and the flotation device 12 will inflate from a gas tank 54 to maintain the watercraft in a floating condition. An emergency communication signal 52 is then sent via telephone, radio, or other remote communication device. Ideally, redundant switches, both warning and trip, are provided for promoting a fail-safe condition on the watercraft for inflation of the flotation device 12.

The present invention includes a trip logic 50 which evaluates condition of all of the water level intrusion sensors 14. The trip logic 50 makes intelligent decisions based on predetermined patterns to allow the electronic deployment system 10 to deploy before level 2 alarms are present. In the case of a roll, for example, where some all water level intrusion sensors indicate level 1 may be cause for activation of the float device 12. The operator is warned and the flotation device 12 will be deployed unless manually stopped by operator.

The trip logic 50 may also include inputs to receive and process information from other sensors or instruments, such as a clinometer, inclinometer, tilt sensor, inertial gyros, or other technology for angular or movement measurement, or measurement of other conditions of the boat or its environment.

At any point, the operator can manually activate the electronic deployment system by a manual control 30. Furthermore, the electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention periodically tests the entire system subsequent to departure.

With the electronic deployment device 10 of the present invention, compressed gas such as air, CO2, nitrogen, or some combination thereof, can be released to inflate the flotation device 12. The gas can be also be generated by a gas generator, compressor, automatic pump, manual pump, or other means.

The electronic deployment system 10 of the present invention supplements the basic automatic mechanical system. The electronic deployment system 10 provides self-diagnostics for reliability assurance. It also allows for multple and redundant senors and early warnings. When the sensors detect certain threats to the craft, such as water in the hull or stability problems, the electronic deployment system 10 first provides a warning, and then, at higher detection levels, automatically deploys the flotation devices 12. The electronic deployment system 10 can also automatically notify the coast guard or present phone numbers.

The flotation device 12 of the present invention, when activated, increases the beam of the watercraft thereby increasing the stability of the watercraft to inhibit the watercraft from tipping over during rough water conditions. The flotation control device 10 of the present invention can also provide an emergency notification signal or other type of signal based on the water level in the hull of the watercraft, or other conditions of the watercraft.

The foregoing exemplary descriptions and the illustrative preferred embodiments of the present invention have been explained in the drawings and described in detail, with varying modifications and alternative embodiments being taught. While the invention has been so shown, described and illustrated, it should be understood by those skilled in the art that equivalent changes in form and detail may be made therein without departing from the true spirit and scope of the invention, and that the scope of the present invention is to be limited only to the claims except as precluded by the prior art. Moreover, the invention as disclosed herein, may be suitably practiced in the absence of the specific elements which are disclosed herein.