Robots Drive Around Courtroom—But Still No Decision As Witness Testimony Ends in IRobot-Robotic FX Case

As 29-year-old Jameel Ahed steered from a remote control perched on the judge’s bench, the two-foot-long Negotiator robot careened across the olive-green carpet, swiveled its electronic eye around the courtroom, and reared up on its hind wheels.

“This could get your exhibits for you,” Ahed remarked to the judge.

“I’m sure it could,” Judge Nancy Gertner replied wryly, the detached amusement showing on her face.

Such was the scene at one point this morning in U.S. District Court in Boston. It was the first time in the four-day-long preliminary hearing—in which Gertner is being asked to determine whether Ahed’s company, Illinois-based Robotic FX, should be enjoined from manufacturing military robots based on what Burlington, MA-based iRobot claims are stolen designs—that the robots themselves took center stage.

The moment came about 90 minutes into Ahed’s first day testifying as a defense witness, after he’d been led by a Robotic FX attorney through an exhaustive account of his involvement in robotics research, going back to his undergraduate work on various robot prototypes—including an “Internet robot,” of which more in a moment—at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. As spectators in the courtroom’s gallery craned their necks for a good look, Ahed stood next to the judge on her dais, demonstrating how the robot’s motion could be directed from the control box, and how to tilt and pan its built-in video camera, with the picture visible on the control box’s LCD screen.

If only the robots—whether the Negotiator or iRobot’s PackBot—could steer a clear path through this case. The day’s events brought even more confusion, and a few fireworks, including potentially explosive insinuations by the defense team that one of iRobot’s newest products, the ConnectR “virtual visiting” robot, might be based on technology the company may have gleaned from Ahed.

This was a particularly strange twist, because the case being heard is about iRobot’s allegations that Robotic FX is inappropriately using iRobot’s technology. On August 17, iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) filed two lawsuits against its Illinois rival. In the Massachusetts case, it accused Robotic FX and Ahed, a former iRobot employee, misappropriation and misuse of confidential information related to iRobot’s “Packbot” military robot. IRobot also filed a separate patent-infringement case against Robotic FX in Alabama. The Boston hearings relate to iRobot’s request for a preliminary injunction aimed at preventing its rival from carrying through on a $279.9 million military contract awarded to Robotic FX on September 14, at least until iRobot’s lawsuit alleging theft of trade secrets is sorted out at trial. But as it turns out, the case isn’t even at the end of the beginning.

While Ahed was the hearing’s final witness, both sides’ attorneys have until next Wednesday to file additional briefs, and today’s proceedings closed with all parties retiring to the judge’s chambers to try to sort out a resolution “short of World War III,” in Gertner’s words. It was unclear when the judge intends to rule on the injunction request, or, indeed, whether she needs to rule at all, given that Robotic FX’s contract has, for the moment, been stayed by the Government Accounting Office pending an investigation into a formal protest filed by iRobot.

We’ll post more after we’ve had time to sort through things. But here are some highlights of today’s proceedings.

• Ahed’s legal team, led today by Alan Barry of Bell, Boyd & Lloyd, laid out questions that gave Ahed several opportunities to explain his own seemingly self-incriminating behavior over the weekend of August 17, after he learned of the iRobot lawsuits. As we’ve detailed in previous stories, private detectives hired by iRobot observed Ahed as he stopped at a dumpster in Chicago on Saturday, August 18, the day after iRobot filed its lawsuits. They then discovered that he’d disposed of a number of items, including wheels and rubber treads made at iRobot, boxes marked “iRobot,” and parts for a rubber-welding machine. In his testimony today, Ahed said the wheels and treads came from a robot he built after he returned to college from a summer internship in iRobot in 1999, using parts given to him by engineers at iRobot.

• Ahed recounted his work as an undergraduate in biomedical engineering, including the construction in 1997 and 1998 of what he called an “Internet robot.” According to his account, the Internet robot included a wireless connection to a home Internet router, allowing anyone to log into the robot remotely from a Web page, drive the robot, pan and tilt the camera, and communicate through a speaker and microphone. Barry entered into evidence a Web page showing the ConnectR, a so-called “virtual visiting” robot introduced by iRobot last week. “How many of the features described on this page are held in common with your Internet robot?” Barry asked Ahed. “All of them. One hundred percent of them,” Ahed answered. After iRobot attorney Ruffin Cordell raised an objection, Judge Gertner pressed Barry about the relevance of the ConnectR page. “This is not a case about whether iRobot has stolen Mr. Ahed’s technology,” she said. Barry agreed and did not pursue the point. During a break in the proceedings, I approached Barry, introduced myself, and said, “Can I ask you about the relevance of the ConnectR evidence?” He answered “No, you cannot,” and walked away.

• Ahed said he continued to work with iRobot on contract after June of 2002, producing antennas and joysticks for the Packbot. He said some of the material he discarded in the dumpster was given to him by iRobot engineers for that project. At this point Judge Gertner quizzed Ahed about why, if the items were not incriminating, he had disposed of them in the dumpster. Ahed replied that at the time he was feeling frustrated about the lawsuit and that he “didn’t want to have any iRobot memorabilia” around his workplace. “The only competitor I had was coming after me. I didn’t want [the materials] anymore so I just discarded them.”

• Additional evidence emerged in one of the more abstruse disputes in the hearings, over whether Ahed or one of his contractors came up with the idea of making the treads for the Negotiator from a plastic substance called Santoprene (as the Packbot’s treads are) and making them in segments that would then be welded together (as the Packbot’s treads are). Under direct examination by Barry, Ahed said today that the idea came from Chad Miller, a manager at a now-defunct plastic extrusion company in Illinois called Wonder Molded Products, as a possible solution to a problem Robotic FX was experiencing with treads that would shrink and rip apart over time. But on cross-examination, Cordell produced a declaration from Miller (apparently obtained by iRobot’s lawyers last night) stating that making the treads in segments and welding them together was Ahed’s idea and that, in fact, Miller had tried to talk him out of it. Barry objected that Miller’s declaration had not been produced to the defense team, and Judge Gertner later excluded it from the record, along with several other documents that both iRobot’s attorneys and Robotic FX’s team attempted to introduce late in the day.

• Near the close of Ahed’s direct testimony, Barry asked him to describe the impact on Robotic FX of winning the contract to build 3,000 Negotiator robots. Ahed said the effect was “amazing” and that he would now be able to hire skilled employees to increase production and make the product better. But the only way the company could really grow, Ahed said, was “as part of a bigger platform—part of a bigger defense company.” He said Robotic FX had recently been approached by several large defense contractors and that discussions with one particular contractor about acquiring Robotic FX were “going very well.” Cordell seized on this point when cross-examination began. He asked Ahed the name of the company, touching off a long discussion between the opposing teams and the judge about whether the confidentiality agreement Ahed had signed with the company meant that he could not be forced to reveal it in court. Gertner asked Cordell why the name was important. Cordell argued that the identity of the company mattered because if Robotic FX’s designs were to be acquired by a very large defense company, the impact of the alleged theft of iRobot’s trade secrets would be even more severe. In the end, Gertner allowed the name of the company to be entered into the court record, but sealed.

• Cordell continued with an aggressive series of questions designed to cast doubt on whether Robotic FX has the capacity to build the robots called for in the contract. He asked Ahed to state how many Negotiator robots the company had built during its best month. Barry objected on the grounds that the question was irrelevant, but Gertner allowed it. Ahed said the company’s maximum monthly production to date was 10 robots. (Earlier in the day, however, he had testified that before the contract was awarded, three teams of defense auditors had visited the company’s facilities and deemed Robotic FX capable of performing the contract.)

Throughout the day both teams of attorneys were on hair triggers, raising objections so frequently that the case began to feel as if it had been written for a TV legal drama. Judge Gertner herself provided some of the entertainment. At the end of the day, Barry asked the court for permission to submit photographs of the Negotiator as exhibits in the case in place of the robot itself. Joked Gertner, “What, I don’t get to keep the robot?”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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