I have recently started reviewing recently published patent applications for companies that seem to have interesting technology, such as Tesla, Apple, Microsoft Kinect, gaming companies, and IRobot. IRobot recently had a patent application published with the USPTO for a “Robot Confinement” system.
This patent application US 20130103194 is directed towards confining a robot in a work space. If you have a Rumba or another type of electronic vacuum, then you are aware that there is a need to be able to confine the robot to a space, so it will not fall down stairs, run into objects you don’t want it to run into, etc. It is of note that this patent application is a child of a provisional patent application (US Application Number 60/263,692), which was filed in Jan. 24, 2001. This parent application is more than likely one of Rumba’s key patents, as this is the fourth or fifth U.S. patent application in this family, and it has been filed in numerous countries worldwide.
A representative claim and FIGURE are reproduced below:
1. A robot navigation system, comprising:
a robot having a signal receiver oriented in a manner to have an omnidirectional field of view and configured to receive both directed signals and diffuse signals;
a portable barrier signal transmitting device for robot navigation, comprising:
at least one signal emitter that emits a first, directed signal; and
at least one omnidirectional signal emitter that emits a diffuse signal region, the directed signal and the diffuse signal region overlapping in a plane parallel to ground level such that a signal receiver on the robot may detect either one or both of the directed signal and the diffuse signal region; and
a control system configured to control one or more of the signal emitters, the control system being configured to:
turn on one or both of the signal emitters in response to a signal received from the robot; and
turn one or both of the signal emitters off after a predetermined amount of time.
As a patent attorney I find several interesting limitations in this claim that are very limiting, would probably not hold up very well in claim construction in litigation, and might unnecessarily narrow the claims. As a note, I have not reviewed the other patent claims in IRobot’s patent portfolio and they may address the issues noted below.
First, in the above claim there are multiple system elements that are required to infringe. The independent claim includes multiple system elements, a robot vacuum having a receiver, a portable barrier transmitting device, and a control system. If a company was to invent a system that was only directed towards creating the barriers for the robot, and not the robot itself, they will not directly infringe on the claim. However, there could be found under the theory of induced infringement, but there may be other non-infringing uses for a signal generator.
Second, the limitation of “predetermined amount of time” requires an unnecessary timing element in the claim. If a system was to turn off after a “dynamic” amount of time then the system will not infringe. For example, if it was required that a user press a button to turn off the signal emitter, they would not meet each and every limitation of the claim, because a user turning on or off the signal emitter would not meet the timing requirement of the claim.
Third, the limitation of “portable” barrier transmitting device may be unnecessarily narrowing. If a company was to make a permanent or semi-permanent emitting device then they would not infringe on the claims. I can envision in the future an even more “wired” home, where maybe the bannisters of a house or furniture itself include Bluetooth emitting devices. It would be a difficult argument to make that a couch or the stairs of a house are portable, so I am not sure what important features this limitation brings to the claims.