The Robotic Feeding Arm (RFA) is an assistive technology device that gives independence to people who rely on feeding assistance. This easy to use device puts people in control of all their meals by allowing the user to choose when they take their next bite.
Independence is a large factor in quality of life, however not everyone has the ability to be independent from some of life’s most basic tasks. For example, eating is a vital part of everyday life, and those who cannot feed themselves look to health care workers to aid them in this task. People with physical or mental conditions such as injuries, gross motor control, paralysis, or cognitive challenges that cause the inability to control or grasp a utensil endure a loss of independence and the reliance on another for health.
A student of the Kennedy Day School in Brighton MA, a 15 year boy, was in need of a device that allowed him to feed himself. This student has only gross motor control so he relied on school aids to hand feed him everyday. This caused him to feel dependent as he longed for a way to be in control. The device he longed for was a simple to use feeding device that could scoop from a selection of food and present it close to his mouth.
Design and Development
Robotic Arm and Control
Accomplishing the mechanics for feeding assistance was realized through the use of a 3 degree of freedom robotic arm. User’s can control the robot arm by using two simple to press buttons that are easily plugged into the device. Button 1 (labeled scoop/return) first signals the robot arm to scoop and present food. After the food is consumed, the user can return the arm by engaging the button again. Button 2 (labeled bowl) spins the bowl allowing the user to eat from every location in the bowl (figure 2).
Because of the variability of the user’s mouth position, RFA has been designed to accommodate varying end locations for the spoon. In other words, as the user’s mouth moves around the work space of the robot, the end-effector is able to track the position of the user’s mouth to meet them. This is accomplished through the use of a webcam and mouth tracking software (figure 3). The white dot seen in the figure 3 will follow the user’s mouth as they move about the screen.
Removable Bowl and Spoon
Sanitation is an important part of the device as health codes are strict within schools and hospitals. RFA features a removable bowl and spoon so that they can be washed. RFA can also be wiped down after each use.
Power and consumption
Powering the device is as easy as plugging a power cable into the back of the device and into a standard wall outlet, then turning on the power switch in the back. Included as a feature (but outside of the design requirements) is making the device very low power. While the device is idling, the mechanics are in equilibrium requiring no power until the scoop routine is engaged.
Evaluation and Results
The first prototype was simple yet effective in creating a solution for feeding dependence. My client enjoyed using his device at lunch time as he took pride in controlling the robot. He could finally decide for himself when to scoop for his next bite.
Lab testing consisted of proof of concept experiments such as controlling the robot to scoop various candies such as m&m’s and skittles. Once delivered, the device went through field testing where the food items consisted of cafeteria foods. Reported foods that were successful with the Robotic Feeding Arm include macaroni and cheese, ground beef with mash potatoes and corn, pudding, etc.
Field testing was a success for the scope of the initial design. Additional features that were requested from this testing included an attachment for the user to eat a sandwich, adjustable depth control for the end-effector, and a different spoon shape as the bowl portion of the spoon was difficult to eat from. Working closely with the school allowed these features to be added and field tested.
Discussion and Conclusions
RFA had one goal: to give independence to those relying on feeding assistance. This goal was met when my client took his first bite on his command without assistance from his care takers. Given this success, the scope of RFA has now grown larger as greater interest in this device has demanded continued development in areas such as user interfacing. Currently, the Robotic Feeding Arm offers these features:
- Scoops a variety of foods
- Meets the users mouth
- Easy to use
- Easy to clean
- Compact and lightweight (approx. 5 lbs)
- Low power consumption
The Robotic Feeding Arm met all the specifications demanded by the user resulting in a minimum viable product with great market potential. With greater field testing and early adoption, RFA will be able to bring independence to all those who demand it.
Special thanks to the Kennedy Day School for introducing me to my client and allowing me the opportunity to work with them to develop this device; the University of Massachusetts Lowell for the continued support in development; and to everyone who has supported me in this venture.