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DJI scores win against Autel in latest patent dispute round

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The Autel Robotics vs. DJI patent is the drone world’s equivalent of Apple vs. Samsung—an intellectual property suit that threatens to shut down the import of tech products into the US. Autel scored a small victory last week, with a preliminary ruling in its favor, but the case is long from over.

Now DJI’s law firm, Finnegan, is reporting several wins in the latest round. The key issue in the past week has been Autel’s U.S. Patent No. 9,260,184. This covers the attachment of rotors to the drone as well as how the arms supporting the rotors fold up against the drone body.

Last week saw a victory in the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) for Autel on the ‘184 patent on the rotors. The Chief Administrative Law Judge ruled that DJI had violated the patent and ordered a ban on the importation into the US of several DJI drones violating the patent: the Mavic Pro, Mavic Pro Platinum, Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic 2 Zoom, Mavic Air, and Spark. The Mavic 2 drone bans would hurt the most, as those are still current models (until the Mavic 3 arrives this year). Autel also filed a motion to get DJI’s Phantom and Inspire series of drones excluded from import as well.

But this week sees a new twist. Finnegan took the case to the Patent Trial and Appeals Board. Yesterday the board ruled that the technology in patent ‘184 is in fact not patentable. This capped a week of rulings from the board in DJI’s favor. It also ruled as unpatentable two other Autel patents:

  • U.S. Patent No. 7,979,174 covering obstacle avoidance tech
  • U.S. Patent No. 10,044,013 covering how batteries clamp on

That lead Finnegan attorneys to claim victory in the latest round:

“Ultimately the Commission may decide that Autel deserves no remedy at all, but at a minimum, the Commission is unlikely to enforce any exclusion order or cease-and-desist order based on the three invalid patents. DJI’s sales in the U.S., therefore, will not be affected by Autel’s claims.”

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Drones

Skydio to resume drone production after coronavirus shutdown

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California-based Skydio makes one of the most talked-about but least seen drones on the market today. The Skydio 2 stands out for its impressive subject tracking, which basically allows it to fly autonomously while filming the subject of a video.

But the drone has been elusive. For one, the company has been overwhelmed with orders. It was already contending with a production backlog before the coronavirus hit. With the lockdowns that took effect in California in March, Skydio’s domestic production has been shuttered.

Already at a disadvantage to much larger rival DJI, Skydio suffered by being located in the country with the highest spread of the coronavirus, and in a state with some of the strictest lockdown orders. Meanwhile, China has largely recovered from the pandemic, allowing DJI’s factories to ramp up in time to pump out its hot new model, the Mavic Air 2.

But conditions are about to change. Skydio informs DroneDJ that its production is about to come back online. “We’re stoked to be able to start shipping drones out to our loyal (and very patient) customers,” the company tells DroneDJ. Skydio didn’t offer specific details about when products would start shipping again and in what kind of volumes, however. Placing an order on the site still brings up a message that California manufacturing has been temporarily halted.

But in any case, it’s good news to know that this promising company will be back in the game, able to compete again with strong rivals Autel and of course DJI. Welcome back, Skydio.

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Drone catches arson suspect in California city

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Here’s another story of police doing something they probably couldn’t have done without a drone. In Irvine, California, police used a drone to quickly spot an arson suspect they were looking for.

According to the Orange County Register, police were called out at about 2:35 a.m. on Wednesday morning to investigate several trash can fires set in the Stonegate residential community in Irvine. While they were checking out one fire scene, a witness approached the police with an account of a suspect who had set another fire and fled.

To help locate the suspect in the dark, police fired up one of their department drones, equipped with an infrared camera. Within 10 minutes, the camera easily spotted 22 year-old Kaveh Shahriari hiding under the awning of a home near the back door. Due to his body heat, he showed up as bright white against the dark background of the yard. Police arrested Shahriari on suspicion of arson.

This has been a busy week for drones in Orange County policing. On Monday, an elderly woman went missing after going out for a walk with her dog in the city of Orange. The Orange Police Department deployed its own drone to search along the road where they believed the woman had been walking. In short order, the drone pilot spotted the woman collapsed in the brush about 20 feet off the edge of the road. (She was taken to hospital and recovered. The dog was also fine.) Searching for the woman on foot could have taken much longer, possibly long enough to cost the victim her life.

With all the concern about police abusing drones, such as overzealous monitoring of people during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to see that police also use drones in ways that protect public safety.

Photo: Diana Măceşanu/Unsplash

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Predator drone flies over riot-wracked Minneapolis

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An unarmed Predator drone owned by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was spotted flying a loop around Minneapolis on Friday morning, in the aftermath of violent protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. It was presumably surveying for further unrest.

The drone was first reported by investigative reporter Jason Paladino with the Project On Government Oversight. He used tools by the ADB-S Exchange, a community that utilizes open-source flight data, to spot the flight. A graphic from ADB-S shows the predator’s flight path as a near-perfect hexagon, 20,000 feet over the center of the city. The precision of the pattern is a telltale sign that the plane is a drone, Paladino told Vice Motherboard.

Seeing the same type of drone used in combat missions in Afghanistan now flying over a US city caused a stir in Washington, with Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeting, “This is what happens when leaders sign blank check after blank check to militarize police, CBP, etc while letting violence go unchecked.”

Now @VICE reporting that @CBP is sending predator drones over #GeorgeFloyd protests in Minneapolis.

This is what happens when leaders sign blank check after blank check to militarize police, CBP, etc while letting violence go unchecked.

We need answers. And we need to defund. https://t.co/tfBZFRNI9G

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 29, 2020

A history of predator drones in the US

True to its mission, CBP typically uses such drones to patrol border regions. This model, CBP-104, has a history going back to at least 2012, reports Motherboard. Its duties have included surveilling the US-Mexico border as well as helping to bust cannabis-grow operations and methamphetamine labs. But unmanned predators have also surveilled other activities within the US. In 2012, for instance, Homeland Security flew a predator to surveil the property of a cattle rancher involved in a 16-hour standoff with another rancher.

The deployment of military technology — and the backlash it’s caused — illustrate the seriousness of matters in Minneapolis. Unrest follows the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of four white police officers. Video captured the death, in which officers are holding Floyd down. One pushes his knee against Floyd’s neck as the man pleads for help, exclaiming that he can’t breathe. The four officers have been fired, and one who pushed his knee into Floyd has been arrested.

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