UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes > January 1997 Search

Who's inventing what? A guide to the past year's patents

In 1996, seven UCAR inventions were awarded U.S. patents. The inventors are being honored this month with plaques and a congratulatory luncheon as part of a new recognition program sponsored by UCAR's Intellectual Property Management Program (IPMP). Below is a summary of the seven newly patented inventions and their creators, all of whom are current or former NCAR staff.

Virtual Reality Imaging System

This three-dimensional view of weather hazards from the Denver International Airport control tower shows Level 5 and 6 thunderstorm reflectivity (left and right), a tornado (center), and a wake vortex (foreground, just above runway). It was created using the virtual-reality imaging package created by RAP's Bill Myers.
Although virtual reality simulators have become widespread in science and entertainment, very few are designed to track features and provide imagery in real time. This system gives aviators and air traffic controllers an uncluttered real-time picture of weather hazards in and around an airport. Users can view three-dimensional phenomena such as microbursts from any point within the given space. The system was created with support from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Low Cost Telemetry Receiving System

Sounding devices are typically tracked while they ascend by a radar-style dish antenna that locates and follows the device within a broad search area. Although this allows for continuous reception of the sounding signal, the approach is expensive and more precise than necessary. This new system uses a set of two phased-array antennas fixed to a single rotating platform, rather than the two rotors employed in most such systems. The oblique antenna beam is narrow in azimuth but wide in elevation, which eliminates the need for additional rotors. Because this antenna system includes only one moving part, and the antennas themselves are constructed with recent technology, the overall system is inexpensive and highly reliable.

Integrated Control System for Preparing and Deploying Sounding Devices and Managing Telemetry Therefrom

Two patents have emerged from the sounding and telemetry system devised in ATD and depicted here. The automated balloon launching device (left) and the dual-antenna telemetry system (right) are linked to an integrated control system (not pictured). The system allows for automated deployment with only occasional assistance from a single operator. Five prototype units based on the set-up above were constructed by ATD and delivered to the National Weather Service. They have since undergone testing at field sites ranging from Alaska to Guam for possible operational use to come.
Balloons have been the standard vehicle for deploying sounding devices for more than 50 years. However, preparing and deploying a balloon and its payload is a labor-intensive process that traditionally has required two to three people. The newly patented system allows a balloon-borne sounding to be deployed in fully automated fashion from a modular structure. The launch and the subsequent tracking via telemetry are overseen by an integrated control system that can be operated by a single person, whether or not that person is present during each deployment.

Portable Intelligent Whole Air Sampling System

Conventional air sampling systems suffer from a variety of limitations, such as large size, inflexible sampling sequences, and high cost. The new system provides a reliable, inexpensive, and portable way to capture ambient gases at or near the earth's surface with high precision. Internal programming allows for sampling at preselected times and volumes and retains an electronic record of the actual sampling sequence. The small battery-powered sampling system is designed for low-cost field maintenance with optional solar powering and either wired or wireless communications.

Gas Concentration and Injection System for Chromatographic Analysis of Organic Trace Gases

A common technique for measuring volatile organic trace gases is to rapidly freeze and reheat an air sample so that the condensable vapors are separated through chromatography and the gas amounts recorded. However, the freezing and reheating can be hindered by insulation and by the uneven and relatively slow heating produced by electrical filaments. This new system uses concentric tubes, so that the freezing and reheating can be accomplished through direct contact between chilled/heated fluids and an inner tube containing the sample. This permits vaporization in less than two seconds with a heating rate of around 125 degrees C per second.

Mass Storage System for File Systems

It is a challenge for large mass storage systems to serve a number of clients quickly and efficiently. Two basic methods are file staging, in which data files are transferred to a client processor before they are used, and network file service, in which files are accessed and used from the mass storage system as if they resided on the client processor. The newly patented system improves on these alternatives by using file systems (staged as bitfiles) rather than individual files. Because each file system incorporates a number of individual files, the file-transfer process is more efficient.

Radar Acquisition System

This patent (which arrived too late for inclusion in the print edition of Staff Notes Monthly) is for the personal computer-based integrated radar acquisition (PIRAQ) system, for which Mitch, Eric, and Joe Vinson received the 1996 Technology Advancement Award. Check the December 1996 issue of Staff Notes Monthly to learn more about PIRAQ.


A walk through the patent process

If good things take time, securing a patent is no exception. "Domestically, it can take anywhere from 18 months to four years to get a patent," says Paul White, intellectual property manager for UCAR. "However, the average time is from 18 to 24 months, depending upon complexity."

Much of the work takes place before a patent application is filed. IPMP and the inventor(s) sit down to identify what is unique and potentially patentable about an invention. Inventors complete a disclosure form that establishes a written record of the invention and helps IPMP make its initial determination of patentability.

As Paul puts it, each patent--a legal right granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office--is "aimed at preventing others from making, using, or selling within the United States the invention that's protected in the patent." According to Title 35 of the U.S. patent code, the invention must be "a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or any new or useful improvement thereof." Furthermore, it must be novel and it must consist of nonobvious subject matter.

The challenge is to cast one's net as broadly as possible to obtain comprehensive coverage around an invention while making a legally convincing argument to the patent office that the size of the net is not too large. To help meet this challenge, UCAR has retained Duft, Graziano & Forest, a patent law firm in Boulder, to draft and pursue each application. Meanwhile, Paul and IPMP director Halina Dziewit work to advise UCAR on the full range of intellectual property law. The law firm works closely with the inventor(s) to review each application and ensure the accuracy of the invention description before it goes to the patent office.

Then comes the waiting, as examiners in the office review the application. "These examiners are subject experts in their fields. They may or may not be lawyers, but they all have technical backgrounds," says Paul.

"After 6 to 12 months, you normally get what's called an office action. Typically, they reject most, if not all, of the claims in your application at this point unless your invention is defined extremely narrowly."

Next, in a very complicated and detailed exchange called patent prosecution, the attorneys engaged by UCAR work with the patent examiner assigned to the patent application. Over a period of months--or years--they move toward agreement on the scope of the claims that define the patent-to-be. "In one exceptional case, we've been engaged in a dialogue for nearly four years," says Paul. "You can always get some kind of protection. In some cases, it may be appropriate to seek narrow protection for unique atmospheric-related instrumentation."

However, if poorly drafted, a patent could leave parts of an invention open for plunder by competition, or the patent might be nullified entirely by a federal court (if, for instance, it was found that the invention had been publicly disclosed or offered for sale more than one year before the patent was filed). UCAR cannot apply for foreign rights if an invention has been publicly disclosed or offered for sale before a domestic patent is filed. "That's why it's so critical that the inventors provide IPMP with a thorough background and history of the invention, which can be done through our invention disclosure form, so we can learn about it as soon as possible and have sufficient time to obtain appropriate patent protection."

UCAR now holds 26 domestic patents and three foreign ones, two in Australia and one in select countries of the European Patent Office. So far, so good, says Paul. "We have a lot of confidence in our patent attorneys. They know what they're doing and they're familiar with UCAR technology. We've got a 100% success rate so far, and we believe that our patents will hold up if ever challenged in court." •BH


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Prepared by Jacque Marshall, jacque@ucar.edu, 303-497-8616