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Businessweek Archives

Bar Code Patents May Go Before The Bar, Again

Developments to Watch


BY THE TIME INVENTOR JEROME H. LEMELSON DIED in 1997, he and his foundation had collected more than half a billion dollars in license fees for a bundle of patents covering bar-code readers and other inspection gear used on automated production lines. Today, the Lemelson patents continue to raise cash--and hackles (BW--July 20). On Oct. 14, a company with its own vision technology filed suit to have Lemelson's patents declared invalid.

The lawsuit, by Cognex Corp. of Natick, Mass., seems odd at first blush. The Lemelson Foundation has never sought royalties from Cognex, which makes sophisticated factory-inspection systems. But the foundation has fought pitched court battles to collect fees from some of Cognex' premier users, which include Ford Motor, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Intel. "Since Lemelson died, we've been getting more and more complaints from our customers," growls Robert J. Shillman, president and founder of Cognex.

Shillman says his company's 150 engineers have put in more than 1,000 cumulative years perfecting their own vision technology--earning 30 patents of their own along the way. He wants his customers to be able to buy his products without having to fight Lemelson's foundation over the right to use them.

Lemelson Foundation lawyer Louis J. Hoffman says Cognex' customers are infringing on its patents "by practicing the patented methods to manufacture products." The Massachusetts courts will have to make the call.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


MILITARY RADAR HAS ONE GREAT DRAWBACK: Enemy missiles can "backtrack" the signals to their sources. The allies used so-called antiradiation missiles supplied by the U.S. to destroy Iraq's air-defense radars during the Persian Gulf war. But U.S. forces are also vulnerable.

After 15 years of quiet development, Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Mission Systems unit has a safer alternative. Called Silent Sentry, it exploits the fact that the skies are already chock-full of commercial radio waves. Silent Sentry uses those waves as its "radar." Some of them inevitably bounce off jets, helicopters, and missiles plowing through the airwaves, and Silent Sentry can detect that. It's just as if the flying objects were being "illuminated" by radar signals at commercial frequencies. Tune in those reflections with a sensitive antenna, then use a computer to sort out the echoes from individual sources, and it's possible to keep tabs on planes or missiles without sending out a telltale radar signal. The system also can update its display faster than radar systems because there's no delay as a radar signal travels out and back.

Using a powerful Silicon Graphics Inc. computer, Silent Sentry can follow some 200 targets at distances of up to 140 miles. The $5 million system works best by triangulating on targets using three different broadcast signals. But it can scrape by with one: From its Gaithersburg (Md.) headquarters, Lockheed Martin Mission Systems has no trouble plotting the traffic over Baltimore's airport using signals from a nearby FM radio station.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


CHEMICALS THAT ACT AS NATURAL INSECTICIDES in plants are turning into a headache for anesthesiologists. Potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants all produce compounds called SGAs, or solanaceous glycoalkaloids. These ward off bugs and are generally harmless to humans. But now, a University of Chicago study suggests even small amounts of these chemicals--ingested several days before an operation--can delay the speed at which patients break down common anesthetics. That can impede patients' ability to quickly shake off drugs after surgery, thus delaying recovery.

Dr. Jonathan Moss, professor of anesthesia and critical care at Chicago and lead author of the study, thinks SGAs and other chemicals in food may account for a lingering mystery. Patients of about the same age and body weight often respond differently to common anesthetics and muscle relaxants. SGAs could account for the variation, he says, because they inhibit two separate enzymes responsible for breaking down common anesthetics. The evidence? When minuscule amounts of SGAs were mixed with human enzymes in a test tube, they blocked the enzymes' ability to break down the drugs.

Despite these findings, presented on Oct. 20 in Orlando, Fla., Moss warns against new presurgery diets until the effects are better understood. "Careful anesthesiologists anticipate variability and monitor patients throughout an operation," he says.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top

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