Robot Arm Patent Fight Drives NASA Disclosure

     (CN) – NASA must produce several proprietary documents related to its development of a robotic arm that is the subject of a patent dispute, the Court of Federal Claims ruled.
     Ross-Hime Designs, a Minnesota company that specializes “in the design and prototyping of humanoid robotic systems,” sued NASA in April 2011, claiming that the federal agency had infringed on two of its patents.
     The allegedly-infringing technologies, known as “Robonaut 1” and “Robonaut 2,” were the product of a joint-development agreement between the federal aerospace agency and General Motors.
     Both Ross-Hime and NASA originally sought protective orders to protect proprietary information associated with the robots. Ross-Hime balked, however, when the government withheld documents relating to Robonaut 2’s design from discovery, calling the information proprietary information.
     Specifically, Ross-Hime sought access to drawings and photographs of a space hand model that NASA had placed on display at the 2012 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Conference on Robotics and Automation.
     The government resisted releasing the information, pointing out that its agreement with General Motors required that the designs be kept confidential.
     Chief Judge Emily Hewitt agreed that NASA deserves to maintain its proprietary designation over some of the disputed documents.
     “Information related to new inventions and technology under development, especially those that are not already the subject of pending patent applications,’ is particularly sensitive proprietary information,” she wrote.
     NASA moreover had not waived its right to proprietary designations by releasing some aspects of the robots’ structure publicly.
     “The court is persuaded that the information contained in the Robonaut 2 CAD drawings represents millions of dollars in value and would be necessary, in addition to the publicly available information, to create a working Robonaut,” Hewitt wrote.
     Ross-Hime can still access photographs that had been taken at the ICRA 2012 convention for the purposes of discovery, the judge said, noting that they had not been identified as proprietary information under the protective order.
     Documents older than 5 years old are also available pursuant to the Space Act, which allows public release of old trade secrets that have been obtained by a non-federal party.
     Hewitt similarly agreed to block Ross-Hime President Mark Rosheim from personally viewing the disclosed documents, crediting NASA worries that his exposure could lead to subsequent patent infringements.
     Instead, Mr. Rosheim’s attorney and outside draftsman are the appropriate parties to review the information, Hewitt determined.
     “Mr. Rosheim is actively involved in pursuing patents, according to the ruling.
     “This creates a greater risk that Mr. Rosheim may inadvertently misuse confidential information as compared to an aerospace or other technical expert who does not stand to gain a competitive advantage from such information,” Ross-Hime added.
     Hewitt modified the protective order and directed NASA to provide the creation dates of several unmarked documents in order to determine whether the Space Act’s five-year disclosure rule applied.

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