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July 10, 2016

Crowdfunded Smart Watch PLB – Scam or Dangerously Naive?

Filed in Gear , News

As appealing as the idea of an affordable ($179) smart watch personal locator beacon (PLB) might be, a recently publicized Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that has garnered a fair amount of press would seem to be either an outright scam or dangerously naive. While many crowdfunding campaigns’ funding goals and delivery promises need be taken with a grain of salt, this one looks to require a dump truck load.

One of the issues with this particular crowdfunding campaign that goes beyond the normal risks involved in any such campaign is that the vast majority of folks have no clue what is involved in bringing a PLB to market. Prior experience in backing crowdfunding campaigns won’t help. It’s far more complicated than your typical tech gadget or mechanical gadget you see on a crowdfunding site. They don’t know what they don’t know, so they have no basis on which to make an informed decision. Informed risk is one thing. Uninformed risk is another.

A PLB is, typically, a pocket-sized distress alerting device used to notify authorities via an international satellite system (COSPAS-SARSAT) that you are in need of rescue. It also provides your location and a homing signal for those coming to rescue you. These are typically used in marine, aviation and wilderness distress situations. A PLB is distinct from a Satellite Emergency Notification Device (SEND) that requires a subscription and that may also provide additional value-added services such as remote area text messaging and tracking.

(NOTE: A copy of this article has been sent to Indiegogo. If the page has been taken down you can view a saved image of the page at: www.equipped.org/smartwatch_plb_indiegogo_07072016.pdf)

Is it irony or hubris that the music the promoter chose for the promotional video accompanying the campaign is the original theme from Mission Impossible? That video is a mash-up of scenes from a number of PLB and SEND promotional videos and Search and Rescue videos, including many from Breitling EMERGENCY videos. The Breitling EMERGENCY is the only available PLB watch you can purchase in the U.S. with a $16,000 +/- MSRP. (Disclaimer: Equipped To Survive Foundation supported the waiver of certain normally required PLB specifications required for the FCC to certify the EMERGENCY for sale in the U.S.)

Only one other PLB “watch” has received COSPAS-SARSAT approval, the chunkier and decidedly unfashionable SAT406 by Mobit Tekecom, but it doesn’t have a 121.5 MHz homing signal, doesn’t have FCC approval and isn’t available for purchase. While aiming to be more affordable than the Breitling, it might be better described as a wrist-worn PLB with auxiliary digital watch functions. Currently, conventional PLBs that are easier to engineer, certify and manufacture start in the low $200 range in a very competitive market.

I sent the Indiegogo campaign promoter, Bernie Goldmann of Riverside, California, a query with a number of common questions you would want answers to for any high-tech crowdfunding campaign via the “Ask a question” link on the Indiegogo page as well as to the email listed on his press release. As of publication of this article, I have not received a response. There was also no response to my voice mail I left when I called the phone number on the press release.

Goldmann’s goal of $25,000 with delivery in December 2016 is, in my opinion, laughable, given the actual costs and time required to bring a PLB to market. Ignore, for the moment, the cost and time for the challenging technical development of this device. A PLB must be certified by COSPAS-SARSAT and the FCC before it can be sold in the U.S. That COSPAS-SARSAT certification process, including lab testing, can typically take up to a year or more, even for a company that is experienced with the convoluted process. There are only four approved labs in the world, only one in the U.S. and that one charges a 200% surcharge for non-military testing. The lab in the Ukraine and Russia cannot be used by U.S. entities, leaving only TUV in the U.K. the only practical choice.

As a result, there is typically a 2- to 3-month lead time to get your beacon tested, assuming you plan ahead and meet your deadlines. The testing will typically take 3 months, and with multiple issues, a lot longer. The more that a beacon stretches established design parameters, the more likely there will be significant issues in testing thereby extending the time and cost. A smart watch PLB would be stretching them nearly to the breaking point with existing technology. The cost of beacon testing alone will be no less than $15,000 and it’s been known to go as high as $60,000 (according to my industry sources).

Then comes RTCM testing in order to get FCC approval that’s required to sell the PLB in the U.S. which industry sources quote at $20,000 – $80,000 through the testing and the FCC approval process itself. The more complicated the application, the more time and money it will cost. Given that any watch-sized PLB will likely need similar exceptions as granted to Breitling, which added years to its approval, that will only add to the time and cost involved.

So, just the testing and certifications required to sell in the U.S. will cost far more than the meager $25,000 budgeted. And, the odds of getting it done by December of this year are zero.

Finally, while Breitling and its technology partner proved you can develop a miniaturized PLB on a chip, so to speak, that is small enough to fit in a relatively large watch case (bigger than any current smart watch) and gain FCC approval, the cost to develop that unique chip and watch is reputed to have been in excess of a million dollars and it took years!

I could go on for pages about the technical and market challenges that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this campaign as presented is nonsensical given the $25,000 goal and promised delivery date, but I think just from these few issues you can see that it’s a non-starter.

Much of the text on the Indiegogo page are copied off other PLB or satellite beacon pages, images grabbed from the mash-up video or similarly other beacon pages. The image of a trio of smart watches was grabbed off the Internet and then surrounded with symbols and text. There’s no possible way that a PLB smart watch could fit inside an existing smart watch case.

Whether it is a con or simple naivety, I’ll leave for you to decide. Anyone buying into it (becoming a “backer”) is likely throwing away their money, in my opinion, since “flexible goal” means the promoter gets to keep the money, even if they don’t reach the goal. From our point of view, the good news is that with approximately one month to go, so far only a single person has backed it. Caveat emptor! Buyer beware!

December 21, 2015

REVIEW: A Pair of Surefire EDC Flashlights That Won’t Break the Bank

Filed in Musings

Surefire has for decades been synonymous with high-performance flashlights, weapon lights and the like, but you would never accuse the company of building particularly affordable flashlights. They’ve never been a factor in the consumer EDC (Every Day Carry) market, just too expensive.

SHOT Show 2015 marked something of a revolution at Surefire as it upended expectations with its new Titan and Titan Plus flashlights, both in terms of price and EDC performance. The first shocker was the price. MSRP is $59.99 for the Titan, $99.99 for the Titan Plus. Take off up to $10 from some online outlets. Not the least expensive single AAA-cell high-performance LED flashlights, but for sure the least expensive Surefire lights ever, by a big margin, and quite competitive once you factor in the features. And, like all Surefire lights, they’re still mostly made here in the USA, with Surefire noting that they are "manufactured in California, in our turning center, using U.S. sourced metals. Only the LED and some circuit board components are imported. We make our circuit boards too."  But, wait, there’s more…

The Titan high beam provides a quite adequate 125 lumens, but the Titan Plus puts out an impressive 300 lumens of what I’ll call
"turbo" output (more on that later). All from that single diminutive AAA-cell. The 300-lumen output requires a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable battery (supplied), alkaline or lithium batteries have too much internal resistance and can’t supply enough current quickly enough. You can use those alternative batteries in a pinch, but it will provide notably lower top output in the Titan Plus. The Titan will run fine on a lithium AAA-cell, and for a bit longer actually.

This fall, Surefire sent me samples. The Titan I received came with a 750 mAh NiMH Surefire branded battery made in China. The Titan Plus included a premium Panasonic Eneloop Pro 900 mAh battery made in Japan. You’ll need your own NiMH battery charger, something many buyers will already own.

Both lights offer a low mode of 15 lumens and the Plus also has an intermediate setting of 75 lumens. Twist the head switch
counterclockwise (as held) to activate and then again to set the next output level, starting at low. After about 4 seconds at the intermediate level, the Plus resets and the next twist sets it back to low.  Both reset to low once turned off.

Sometimes you might prefer it just continue to high, even after some time has passed, but in actual use I didn’t find it really mattered much. A quick couple twists and I had 300 lumens when needed and didn’t accidentally get it when I didn’t. Particularly since high mode sucks the battery down quickly, the high setting should be reserved for only when needed.

I noticed one peculiarity with switching the Titan Plus from the intermediate level to high, in that it takes just a fraction of a second
longer pause between those modes than from low to intermediate. It only took a brief period of using the light to naturally accommodate that difference, but at worst you just have to give it another quick twist if it doesn’t go to high on that initial twist.

The heads have flats milled into them to provide added grip, especially important when operating one-handed. That works fine most of the time, but with wet or oily fingers, it is marginal. Some knurling or other means to provide a more secure grip would be better under such conditions. 

Surefire rates the Titan Plus at 300 lumens for 45 minutes, but that is its ANSI rating, which is somewhat misleading (even if it allows
for somewhat direct comparisons between lights).  In my experience, you can expect to get about 5 minutes of very high output before it dims enough to be noticeable and then another 10 minutes before it dims a bunch. Thus, my reference to this as a "turbo" mode.  Useful for those instances when you need a really bright life for something quick, but you should not expect it to provide full output for an extended period. At this juncture, it’s getting just about as much light as practical from that little AAA-cell. Bear in mind, also, that the eye is somewhat insensitive as a light meter and at higher brightness it takes a significant drop in light output for us to notice it.

The Plus is rated at 75 lumens for 2 hours and it took almost the entire 2 hours for it to drop enough to be noticeable, but it then dropped way down as the regulation circuitry had sucked as much juice as it could from the battery.  I found the 75 lumen output level more than adequate for almost any situation where I needed bright light for EDC use. I rarely used the 300 lumen level in normal EDC use.

The Titan’s 125 lumen high output is rated at 1 hour and it lasted 40 minutes before dropping precipitously. 

Running the lights at their 15 lumen output, the Titan is rated at 8.5 hours and the Titan Plus at 7 hours. I asked Surefire about that
seeming contradiction and they explained that the Titan Plus circuitry was optimized for the 300 lumen output and thus the 15 lumen output paid the price. They compared it to running your Ferrari around town.  In any case, I got pretty close to that in my tests. 

15 lumens is perfectly adequate for finding your way on a dark night and most situations requiring a light at night. For viewing
something more clearly in a room that wasn’t dark, the higher settings are better. I found myself using the low setting for 80% of my EDC use. By way of comparison, the 15 lumen output is about equal to the 2 x D-cell incandescent lights I grew up with (a long time ago, pre-Maglite) and it was far superior in usefulness with its far better beam quality.

MaxVision Lights Up the Neighborhood

Which brings us to another feature that separates these lights from most other pocket-sized EDC flashlights, the beam itself. This innovation is courtesy of the patent pending multi-faceted reflector that creates what Surefire is calling a "MaxVision Beam." There have been a variety of attempts to create smooth and wide light (flood) from high-output LEDs, whether single focus or via a zoom mechanism, primarily using a lens and occasionally with some reflector technology. Some have been better than others, but the majority have not been particularly compact and most have been less than impressive.

The MaxVision Beam is not about how far the beam can throw down-range; it’s all about providing a wide, even beam. This is especially
advantageous lighting up your entire environs out to a practical distance, a true "flood" beam. You really have to re-calibrate your expectations or you’ll miss the point.

For some time, the grail of higher powered flashlights has been "throw," how far they can light up something that’s a long ways
away. That has some advantages, particularly in some tactical situations.  You increase throw by concentrating the light beam in order to send more photons further, which is great downrange, but you end up with a very narrow bean up close. Design-wise, it’s a lot simpler than creating a broad and smooth beam, particularly using an LED.  These lights aren’t about throw, they are about useful light at close to moderate distances and they do an admiral job of it. 

After carrying these lights for some time in regular EDC use, and comparing them with other pocket-sized lights, the functional
advantage is readily evident. With the broad and even illumination, there’s a lot less moving the beam around to light stuff up and that, as it turns out, is a really good thing for an EDC light.

Anyone who has walked down an alley or on a trail in the dark knows what it’s like to be continuously moving the light around to light
up near, far, left, right, etc. You just can’t illuminate everything you want to be able to see at the same time. 

Not so with the MaxVision Beam. Surefire says it was specifically designed to light up your natural field of vision with a smooth, pretty
even beam. Find yourself in an alley and the entire alley is lit up, wall to wall, a huge advantage in situational awareness. On the trail, you’ll be able to see up ahead, both sides and that branch sticking out ready to poke your eye out. Working on something in the dark, changing a tire or fixing something under the hood, lighting a big chunk of the work area simply makes it easier to accomplish the task at hand. On low output, it illuminates a good portion of any map or chart and all of one of those old-fashion books printed on paper that some folks still read.

The difference compared to a conventional flashlight really has to be seen to be appreciated. This light isn’t about throw distance, it’s
about usable light where you need it most. Click here for a Surefire has a marketing video that does a fair job of showing the MaxVision beam.

Construction

The Titan has a Type III black anodized aluminum body, 0.58 inches in diameter and 3 inches long, weighing in at 0.9 oz. It’s a good size
and weight for a key-chain light and has an integral tailcap post and split ring.

The Titan Plus has a bushed nickel-plated brass body. It turns out that aluminum just isn’t conductive enough to accommodate the current
flow needed to push the light output to 300 lumens. It is also 0.59 inches in diameter with the length extended to 3.375 inches to accommodate the extra electronics needed to work with that high output and the removable tailcap.

The change to brass ups the weight to 2 ounces, a very noticeable difference. While it also has an integral tailcap post, it comes with quick-detach plastic tailcap (that adds 0.1 ounces) with split ring that fits over the end so it’s relatively easy to get it on or off a keychain when you need to. A good yank or levering the cap off to the side separates the cap from the light. In my opinion, at nearly 2 ounces it’s a bit too heavy for a keychain light for most folks.  So, it’s a good thing that it also comes with a removable pocket clip.

The tailcap retains the pocket clip and serves as attachment for the plastic cap, it doesn’t appear to have any other function. The tailcap
on my sample was tight enough from the factory that in order to unscrew it to remove the pocket clip I needed to use a slim screwdriver through the post hole to get enough leverage. The clip is not reversible and at 2 ounces, it’s really too heavy to use as a cap light.

The lights are rated at IPX7 for water-resistance, meaning they are good for immersion up at 1 meter for 30 minutes.  I testing them for 45 minutes at 1 meter (lost track of the time) and they worked fine afterwards with no visible water intrusion.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I think Surefire has a potential hit with the Titan line-up.  The price and features work for somebody looking for a
compact and useful EDC light that’s a step up from the run-of-the-mill 1 x AAA LED flashlights for not too much more money. Whether Surefire can successfully market to a more average consumer remains a question. Engineering innovation for a new market is one thing; marketing to an entirely new consumer is a far bigger leap.

Franken-Titan

I really liked having the triple mode option with that really bright high beam for the occasional times it comes in handy, and the mid-range 75 lumen output for general use, but I really wanted it as a keychain light. I wondered what would happen if I fitted the Titan Plus head (and 900 mAh battery) to the Titan aluminum body? That combination weighs in at 1.3 ounces, a significant reduction in weight, relatively, putting the "Franken-Titan" back into keychain weight territory, in my opinion.

I asked Surefire about this and they said it wouldn’t damage the electronics, but noted that the threads were slightly different. It seems
to screw on and off just fine for me, so apparently not different enough to matter.

Surefire said they didn’t have any runtimes or output ratings for this configuration. In terms of light output, it seemed to me to be
visually indistinguishable at 15 and 75 lumens. Without an integrating sphere I couldn’t measure the brightness, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was close to the same on the high setting as with the brass body. It lasted at or near the initial brightness for essentially the same amount of time at all levels. Clearly it wouldn’t work to produce the same ASTM rating at full 300 lumens, or they would have stuck with aluminum, but that is of little concern to me.  It works just fine from my practical use perspective. It’s now in my pocket on my keychain.   

Perhaps it’s something for Surefire to consider as buying two lights to get one doesn’t exactly provide the same level of value.  Also, the quick-detach option with that tailcap would still be nice to have with a lighter-weight EDC light.

And, as long as we’re wishing, an affordable Surefire 1xAAA headlamp with the MaxVision beam would be a great addition to this consumer EDC line-up.

February 4, 2015

Leatherman Tread Moves EDC Multi-tool in New Direction

Filed in Musings

Leatherman TreadLeatherman’s Tread takes the concept of an EDC (Every Day Carry) multi-tool in an entirely new direction with virtually unlimited potential. There have been numerous less than successful attempts at functional jewelry that you wear as a pendant and there’s no shortage of keychain-sized tools, many of which can be hung from the neck. However, the Tread’s 25 tools ingeniously incorporated into the links of a stainless bracelet may be almost as revolutionary as Tim Leatherman’s original Pocket Survival Tool (Click on image to right for higher resolution).

Leatherman President Ben Rivera, formerly chief designer at Leatherman, was inspired to create an alternative to a traditional multi-tool after an uncomfortable and inconvenient experience at Disneyland that left him without his Leatherman Skeletool. Rivera related that he “was unwilling to give it up (at the gate), so they made me take it all the way back to my hotel room (with security following him the entire way). I knew there had to be another way to carry my tools with me that would be accepted by security.”

linksThe somewhat intricate links are precision manufactured using a Metal Injection Molding (MIM) process. Compared to the typical 300-series stainless typically used in jewelry, watch bands and the like, the 17-4 stainless steel can be heat treated to harden the steel so it will hold up to the rigors and abuse the tools will see. The bracelet is available in either natural stainless steel or with a DLC (Diamond-Like Coating) black finish.

The links are easily exchanged or removed as needed using a coin or, perhaps, your normal Leatherman tool. Regardless, the all-important and essential bottle opener will always be available, integrated into the fold-over clasp (which is adjustable in quarter-inch increments). Leatherman anticipates creating optional links with additional tools and tool combinations that will allow a Tread owner to customize their bracelet to suit. The potential tool options are virtually unlimited and as soon as we started examining the Tread many potential new tools came to mind.

To use any tool, the appropriate link is selected and then the remainder of the bracelet squeezed together becomes the handle.
If there’s any drawback to the integrated tools, it is the short length of the screw and hex drivers. With a 1/4″ drive socket in one of the links, that drawback can be alleviated by carrying a few standard 1/4″ drive bits and possibly an extension. No doubt Leatherman will soon make such a pocket kit available, similar to the bit kits for their regular multi-tools.

In an era where men’s wrist jewelry and watches often make a motorcycle drive chain look petite, the Tread is unlikely to raise an eyebrow. Rivera told us that he’s been flying with the prototype worldwide for a year with no issues. The Tread isn’t a flyweight bracelet, but at 5.3 oz (150g) is unexpectedly light, due in part to the voids and such created by the integral tools. Titanium would be lighter, but it would also be more expensive by an order of magnitude.

The Tread QM1 replaces a couple links, leaving 19 tools, with a Leatherman-designed, Swiss-made watch with a quartz movement. Its scratch-resistant sapphire crystal is in keeping with the likely abuse the tool may see. The watch snaps in and out of its stainless carrier and it’s not difficult to imagine it being replaceable with a variety of watches and smart watches down the road. Again, the possibilities are darn near limitless.

The initial list of tools incorporated into the Tread are:

Cutting Hook, Bottle Opener, Carbide Glass Breaker, 1/8″, 3/16″, 1/4”, 5/16”, 3/8” and 10mm Box Wrenches, 3/32″, 3/16”, 1/4″ and 5/16” Screwdrivers, #1-2 and #1 Phillips, 3/32”, 1/8”, 3/16”, 1/4”, 5mm and 6mm Hex Drives, #2 Square Drive, 1/4” Socket Drive, Oxygen Tank Wrench, Pick/Sim Card Tool

The stainless Tread will have a MSRP of $150, the DLC version will be $200. Leatherman says the Tread bracelet will be available Summer 2015, followed by the version including the watch in Fall 2015, at $500 for stainless and $600 for DLC.

We only had a brief opportunity to play with the Tread at SHOT Show, so we’ll have to reserve any real-life impressions until we get one to play with at length. Stay tuned…

January 28, 2015

Surefire Breaks New Ground with 1xAAA Titan & Titan Plus

Filed in Musings

Click for FULL Review

Surefire Titan and Titan PlusSurefire has for decades been synonymous with high-performance, high-end flashlights, weapon lights and the like, but you would never accuse the company of building particularly affordable flashlights. Nor were they ever a major market mover in the consumer EDC (Every Day Carry) market. That was then.

SHOT Show marked something of a revolution at Surfire as it upended expectations with its new Titan and Titan Plus flashlights, both in terms of price and EDC performance. The Titan name is carried over from the original $500 titanium “halo product” light and then the T1A, a single CR123-cell conventional aluminum light with a $249 MSRP, but the name is the extent of the carryover.

The first shocker is the price, $59.95 for the Titan, $99 for the Titan Plus! Honest, that’s not a typo. Not the least expensive single AAA-cell high-performance LED flashlight, but for sure the least expensive Surefire lights ever, by a big margin, and quite competitive. And, they’re still made here in the USA. But, wait, there’s more…

The Titan high beam provides 125 lumens and the Titan Plus provides 300 lumens! All from that single AAA-cell. The 300-lumen output requires a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) rechargeable battery, neither alkaline or lithium batteries can provide enough current quick enough. You can use an alternative battery in a pinch, but it will provide notably lower top output (Surefire wasn’t able to quantify that at press time). The Titan will run fine on a lithium AAA-cell, and for considerably longer. A Sanyo Eneloop NiMH battery is included with both, but you’ll need your own charger, something many buyers will already own.

Both lights offer a low mode of 15 lumens and the Plus also has a mid-range of 75 lumens; twist the head switch counterclockwise repeatedly to activate and set the output level, starting at low. Surefire rates the Titan Plus at 300 lumens for 45 minutes. The Titan runtime on high (125 lumens) is 1 hour, at 15 lumens it is 8 hours using the NiMH battery. A lithium AAA-cell will get you 2 hours and 10 hours, respectively. That’s all we could get on runtime from Surefire by press time. But, wait, there’s more…

These lights are being marketed towards “every-person” use in normal daily activities. The other innovation, that has already “trickled up” to some of Surefire’s more normally priced tactical and weapon lights, is the patent pending multi-faceted reflector that creates what Surefire is calling a “MaxVision Beam.” There have been a variety of attempts to create smooth and wide light from high-output LEDs, whether single focus or via a zoom mechanism, primarily using a lens and occasionally with some reflector technology. Some have been better than others, but the majority have not been particularly compact and most have been less than impressive. The MaxVision Beam is not about how far the beam can throw down-range; it’s all about providing a wide, even beam to light up the entire environs out to a practical distance. You really have to recalibrate your expectations or you’ll miss the point.

We were able to go hands-on with the Titan Plus after dark in the real world. While we were unable to find a really dark alley in Las Vegas near the Sands, we were able to see what a difference this beam makes. Anyone who has walked down an alley or on a trail in the dark knows what it’s like to be continuously moving the light around to light up near, far, left, right, etc. Even a so-called wide beam light just doesn’t have the spread to illuminate everything you want to be able to see at the same time, let alone do it as smoothly as this.

Not so with the MaxVision Beam. It was specifically designed to light up your entire natural field of vision with a spectacularly smooth, even and plenty bright beam. The entire alley is lit up, wall to wall, a huge advantage in situational awareness. On the trail, you’ll be able to see up ahead, both sides and that branch sticking out ready to poke your eye out. On low output, it illuminates the entire book you’re reading, or most of any map or chart. The difference compared to a conventional flashlight really has to be seen to be appreciated. This light isn’t about throw distance, it’s about useable light where you need it. Surefire needs to do a good video to illustrate the difference, because unless you see it, it’s hard to imagine what a difference it makes.

The Titan has a Type III black anodized aluminum body, 0.58 inches in diameter and 3 inches long, weighing in at 1 oz. It’s a good size and weight for a key-chain light.

The Titan Plus has a bushed nickel-plated brass body. It turns out that aluminum just isn’t conductive enough to accommodate the power needed to push the light output to 300 lumens. It is also 0.59 inches in diameter with the length extended to 3.375 inches to accommodate the extra electronics needed to work with that high output. The change to brass ups the weight to 1.8 ounces, a noticeable difference. It comes with quick-detach plastic tailcap that fits over the end so it’s easy to get on or off the keychain when you need to. Some may find it a bit too heavy for a keychain light. It also comes with a two-position pocket clip that allows conventional pocket carry or reverse it to clip it to your cap’s bill. On that note, we hope the next product is going to be a compact headlamp using this MaxView Beam technology, because it just screams to be used that way.

Surefire also showed off a very compact weapon light (the XC1) and wristlights using this same MaxVision Beam tech which are perfect applications for it. But for value and performance, the Titan lights are a home run.

Surefire aims to start delivering both Titan lights in the second quarter.

Click for FULL Review

January 23, 2013

ACR vs DME SATRO PLB: DME Loses

Filed in Musings

Final judgment is in on ACR’s lawsuit against DME and its design consultants alleging that they misappropriated ACR trade secrets and documents and incorporated them into DME’s SATRO PLB. In a Stipulated Judgment and Permanent Injunction issued on January 15, 2013, DME lost big time.

For background:

Click Here for the original article about the DME SATRO PLB from December 9, 2011: They Keep Shrinking: Smaller & Lighter PLB From DME

Click Here for the intial article detailing the filing of the lawsuit with supporting documents from October 15, 2012: What Happened to the SATRO PLB from DME?

The Stipulated Judgment and Permanent Injunction represents a negotiated agreement between the parties that has been agrreed to and been signed off by the judge in the case. This came about after DME lost the critical first round when the judge issued a preliminary injunction against DME back in October 2012.

Click Here to read that Order Granting Plaintiff’s Motion for a Preliminary Injunction, which includes the judge’s findings of fact which virtually all fell in favor of ACR.

In the end, not only was DME forced to pull the SATRO PLB from the market, which it had already essentially done, and agree not to use ACR’s trade secrets, they also agreed that for a period of four years they would not market ANY PLB and for two years would not market ANY EPIRB. Essentially, for the agreed periods of time, DME is out of the PLB and EPIRB business.

Moreover, the other defendants, the design consultants who formerly worked for ACR, agreed that for a period of five years they cannot work or contribut in any way to the design, development. marketing or sales of PLBs, EPIRBs, or ELTs.

There’s more details, but those represent the bottom line results, a big win by ACR. Click here to read the entire Stipulated Judgment and Permanent Injunction.

October 22, 2012

Post Election Rioting: Alarmist or Just Being Prepared?

RiotingThe past few weeks have seen a significant uptick in emails to me expressing concern about possible rioting as a result of the upcoming election, asking what the writer should do to protect themselves (a subject also being discussed on a number of online forums). If anything is a sad commentary on the current political situation, this certainly is.

Having said that, we don’t have a history of riots after elections in the U.S., even when we have had hotly contested results (Bush-Gore), but I do think the upcoming election has at least some potential for stimulating rioting due to a confluence of factors; unrealistic expectations, adverse media influence by way of so many rioting scenes from overseas (and feeding of unrealistic expectations) and provocateurs, domestic and foreign, who might seize on the opportunity, combined with the rise in social media and its influence which can be abused to inflame situations. The past is not always a predictor of the future, particularly when key elements have changed.

“Potential” certainly isn’t the same as “likely,” but like all prospective emergency situations, it pays to consider the possibilities and be prepared if your assessment is that it is a concern. You asked, and that’s my job.

Riots generally have relatively limited geographic impact in the U.S. Avoiding likely areas is your best defense. That is sometimes easier said than done, but should be possible for most folks for the short term of any likely trouble to arise.

By and large, riots don’t occur in affluent neighborhoods, bedroom communities, small towns or rural areas. Riots have historically been centered in densely populated urban areas in poorer neighborhoods. Adverse impacts such as fire may spread some beyond these areas, but it is rare.

It is the perverse nature of such things that rioters generally tend to make a mess of their own space to their own detriment, but there’s nothing rational about a riot, nor is that always the case. Get caught in the event and it matters not that you were just a passersby; you could become a victim.

It appears that some urban law-enforcement agencies may be taking the possibility of rioting after this election seriously, but it doesn’t appear to be a widespread concern. In such instances you might expect a strong presence on the street and very rapid and strong reaction should anything start up.

On the other hand, don’t assume law enforcement will be taking extra precautions or any at all; there are always those in leadership positions who either won’t consider potentially adverse situations or somehow think preparing for such a possibility will, itself, cause them too much political grief. Virtually all such organizations have plans for civil disturbances, but the key is how quickly they can implement them in an emergency.

Minutes, hours or days will make a huge difference in outcome. If you live or have a business in an area where the potential exists, meet with law enforcement ahead of time and ascertain if they are prepared and to what degree. Your response may key off what you find out, but I would not necessarily suggest sharing your response with them.

So, what to do if you are concerned and want to be prepared yourself? As noted above, avoid such areas if you can. If you work in such an area, I think I might consider taking a few days off starting November 6th.

If you have property in such an area you have two stark choices, beyond deciding that this is just paranoia. Flee or prepare to defend it.

As the Korean-Americans in the Rodney King Riots demonstrated, a strong armed presence and willingness to fight may dissuade rioters from attacking your property or, worst case, protect it from assault. This is, ideally, not something that should be thrown together at the last minute without significant preparation and planning, as was done in that instance.

First off, armed protection against a mob is much more effective if you have a group of defenders. A single person, or small family group, doesn’t stand much chance against a mob, even if armed. Remember, they may be armed as well, and as we saw in the Rodney King Riots, they may be perfectly willing to use their weapons. And, nothing much will protect you against a fire spreading.

Let me stress that as those Korean-Americans found out, just having a firearm won’t necessarily deter the mob. You may well have to use it. If you have no stomach for shooting someone to protect your property and self, don’t even try. And, be prepared to deal with the political and legal aftermath, which may not be pleasant.

If you decide to defend your property, be smart about it. Send the kids and anyone who would be a liability away to someplace safe. Either have defensive barricades and such in place or the ability to set them up very quickly. Be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least a few days and be prepared for dealing with traumatic injuries. Have alternate means of communications because wired and cell phones may not function.

This is, at best, just an overview of key issues. Work with your fellow property owners and develop a strategy. Always assume worst case and have tactics for dealing with those, including a tactical retreat. Your property is not worth dying over. It may not be worth killing over. Think hard about this. This won’t necessarily end like a Hollywood movie where only bad guys, and others you don’t care about, get hurt.

Again, this is not something to take lightly or without significant preparations. If you cannot do it right, if you are not prepared mentally to deal with the significant issues, or you decide the risk is not worth it (which is where I think many would find themselves after due consideration), then make sure your insurance is in good shape (check that it covers a riot) and get the hell out of there ahead of time with any irreplaceable belongings and records.

Then, if things go seriously bad, call your insurance company and tell them what happened to their property.

Hopefully, all this is an exercise in abundant caution. But, that’s how you end up not surprised by events.

October 15, 2012

What Happened to the SATRO PLB from DME?

Filed in Gear , News

NOTE: DME has withdrawn the SATRO PLB from the market. Click here for the final judgement in this lawsuit.

SARTO PLB-110I have been getting a number of inquires about Astronics DME Corporation’s SATRO PLB-110 “world’s smallest and lightest” PLB that we first wrote about back in December of last year (2011). Besides being small, one of the unique features of the PLB was a form factor that mimicked a modern smart phone, making it flatter and more pocketable than existing designs. It was also buoyant, despite the small size, another unique feature at the time. There’s been a lot of interest and DME was saying that they expected to reach market in the Spring of 2012, though Spring came and went without the PLB being available.

Since it isn’t unusual for a distress beacon manufacturer to blow their expected introduction date, in my experience, I wasn’t all that concerned or surprised. In any case, we are now in the Fall of 2012, and after more emails to me asking what was happening, I decided to check up on what was going on.

I was able to ascertain that both COSPAS-SARSAT and FCC approvals were gained in March and May, 2012, respectively, but, I found that the SATRO PLB has disappeared from the DME web site.

When I tried to talk to DME about the SATRO, I got nowhere, zip, nada, nothing! Think “black hole.” Clearly, something was awry and when a company clams up that tight, my first suspicion is some sort of legal issue is involved. After some further sleuthing around the Internet, seems my instincts were correct.

ACR ResQLink PLB-375Turns out that just days before I published my initial report on the SATRO, ACR Electronics filed a Federal lawsuit against DME and its design consultants, former ACR design engineers and employees. These former ACR employees left ACR and formed their own electronics design consultancy, gaining DME as a client. ACR claims, among other things, that they had misappropriated ACR trade secrets and documents and incorporated them into the new SATRO PLB. ACR also asked for a Preliminary Injunction to prevent DME from selling the SATRO PLB, which has not, to date, been granted. You can see all the allegations in the filing here:

ACR’s 1st Amended Complaint

Also, I have posted some motions from ACR and DME:

ACR Motion for Preliminary Injunction
DME’s Proposed Findings of Fact
ACR’s Proposed Findings of Fact

These all make for interesting reading, but, they only tell part of the story. There have been dozens of filings in this case (as of this article, 166 items on the docket). Some of the filings have been sealed at ACR request and there’s hundreds of pages of declarations and additional motions (costs money to get these, so we just got a few of what seemed like the most critical). Whatever else happens, the lawyers involved must be making a mint.

This lawsuit certainly could explain why DME decided against selling the SATRO, at least at this juncture. If they were deemed in the end to be liable, any damages would be significantly lessened if they didn’t sell any of the beacons. And, the motion for preliminary injunction is pretty much moot if they aren’t selling the PLB. On the other hand, there is no certainty that ACR will prevail in court.

Also, along the way, DME filed a counterclaim against the consultants, a normal strategy in such a complicated lawsuit, covering their butt somewhat in case the consultants actually did do what ACR alleges.

If ACR’s claims are true, they have every right to sue and stop the theft of their property. A cynic might note that as long as DME isn’t selling the SATRO, ACR benefits by not having to compete with a PLB that could offer consumers some significant perceived advantages over the existing ACR PLBs.

No surprise, DME and the design consultants counter in their filings that they did nothing wrong and that ACR is way off base. Mostly they say that whatever similarities that exist between the SATRO and the ACR PLBs are the result of common design solutions to electronics required by dint of the regulatory specifications in any PLB and/or expertise and procedures these particular engineers already had prior to be hired by ACR and/or existing technology freely available or not really a trade secret of ACR.

I won’t bore you with the myriad convoluted details, claims and counterclaims, allegations and rebuttals, you can read the filings above if you need help falling asleep one night, but only time will tell how this ends up. As of the end of last month, the court docket shows that the parties had agreed to a mediator, a standard procedure in such cases, and perhaps that means that a settlement can be reached…or not. Another option might be that DME will redesign the SATRO to avoid any possible issues with the claimed stolen ACR tech, or it may be that one or the other may eventually prevail in court.

Without access to all the court filings, it is impossible for me to render an opinion as to who is in the right in this fight. The only thing that is certain at this point is that it is a nasty fight that is costing all involved lots and lots of money and consumer availability of this smaller and lighter PLB is uncertain at this point, so don’t be holding your breath. If you need a PLB today, just get one before you find yourself wishing you had.

Not surprising given the ongoing litigation, neither ACR or DME would comment for this article.

Stay tuned!

NOTE: DME has withdrawn the SATRO PLB from the market. Click here for the final judgement in this lawsuit.

September 6, 2012

UPDATED: Patent Claims Invalidated – BriarTek Patent Claims Pressure Popular 2-Way Distress Beacon Manufacturers

Filed in News

Updated December 3, 2014: BriarTek’s patent claims relating to 2-way Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs) have been invalidated in a federal court ruling that granted summary judgement to Delorme. While the ruling makes interesting reading, if you are so inclined (Click here for links to the ruling download or viewing), the bottom line from District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema was that “all the asserted claims have been found to be invalid as a matter of law over the prior art, either as anticipated or as obvious,” and therefore BriarTek’s patent was invalid.

BriarTek’s patent claims threatened to strangle expansion and innovation is this increasingly popular distress beacon market. At best, the patent claims would increase the cost of the devices for consumers, which inevitably discourage purchase and their subsequent use to save lives.


Updated December 17, 2012: At the RTCM Board of Directors meeting last week, BriarTek delivered a letter stating that their patent was “not essential” and that it was possible to build a two-way SEND to the SC-128 standard without violating their patent. Discussion ensued and it was noted that in the opinion of at least one manufacturer present (and I concur), such a SEND would not be commercially viable since there would be little communication afforded without text, which is the essential part of the patent and essential to a commercially viable two-way SEND.

The conclusion was that while BriarTek was technically correct about it being “not essential,” in reality they were splitting very fine hairs. When I asked if they had amended their patent or planned to do so to encompass those alternative means, we were told by BriarTek’s representative at the meeting, Chuck Collins, that they had not done so and he couldn’t tell us if they planned to do so. BriarTek’s Intellectual Property attorney, John Fuisz, also attended.

In the end the Board determined that BriarTek had not violated the specific elements of RTCM’s Intellectual Property Policy, even if the general sentiment was that they had violated the spirit of the policy, and they decided not to invalidate and pull the SC-128 standard. Rather, they will revise the standard to incorporate a notice of BriarTek’s “not essential” patent.

This situation clearly exposed loopholes in the RTCM Intellectual Property Policy that was intended to prevent exactly this type of situation, where a party to the development of a standard could benefit financially from holding a patent essential to building devices that meet the standard. The Board took action to begin revising their Intellectual Property Policy to attempt to prevent the occurrence of such a situation again in the future.

With regards to the ITC complaint, I understand that Yellowbrick have capitulated and signed a licensing agreement with BriarTek. Given their very small market share and even smaller sales in the U.S. , that probably made sense from a purely financial perspective. I should note that doesn’t have any bearing on the validity of the patent.

I spoke to Delorme President Mike Heffron, who told me they had no intention of backing down. In an interesting turn of events, he told me that in a move initiated prior to the ITC complaint being filed, they will begin production in the U.S. very early in 2013. That would essentially nullify the ITC complaint, since the ITC ’s powers are limited to importation issues. At that juncture the ball is back in BriarTek’s court; they would need to file a lawsuit in Federal Court to continue their effort to enforce their patent.

Stay tuned. I somehow doubt this is the end of this story.


Updated October 10, 2012: BriarTek contacted me after this article was published and advised that they did have distribution and provided a list of 12 distributors for their Cerberus SEND. I requested that they provide links to the companies’ web sites, but they never responded to that request. With their help I was able to locate the product on REI’s web site and I independently located it on the SatPhoneCity USA web site, another of the listed distributors. The other distributors listed, most of which I was unable to locate with Google, appear to be strictly industry oriented operations, many of which are not located in the U.S., and clearly not consumer oriented U.S. businesses. That was the issue at hand in the article (below) regarding the claim that there was lack of distribution in the U.S. sufficient to replace, somehow, the existing widespread distribution of the targeted Delorme inReach, which if barred from sale would have an adverse effect on consumers.

I had hoped to visit BriarTek while I was in the D.C. area the week following publication of the article, at Joe Landa’s invitation, but was unable to do so due to unanticipated conflicts.

At the RTCM Board of Directors meeting in Orlando, there was considerable discussion of this issue. I arrived a few minutes late and then participated in that discussion. A Delorme representative attended the meeting. Joe Landa attended via conference call. BriarTek had indicated to the Board that in their opinion, their patent is not an “essential” patent. If this is the case then devices could be produced that meet the standard without infringing the Briartek patent. However, it could be that such devices would be far less commercially viable. RTCM requires any patents related to the standard to be declared. The difference between an “essential” patent and a “non-essential” patent is that RTCM does not publish standards that rely upon an essential patent. If the BriarTek patent is deemed “essential,” then it is possible the RTCM SC128 standard for SENDs might be withdrawn, which could create all sorts of problems.

The Board requested that BriarTek provide a letter that clearly stated whether they considered their patent to be essential or not, and why, and that they also include their proposed licensing requirements. Landa agreed to do so in a timely manner. The issue was then tabled until the next Board meeting in December, pending receipt of that letter. It was clear that not everyone on the Board agreed with the BriarTek position that their patent was non-essential.


September 6, 2012: On August 17, 2012, BriarTek IP, Inc. of Alexandria, Virginia, filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) that alleges that Delorme’s and Yellowbrick’s 2-way Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs) infringe upon a BriarTek patent (U.S. Patent No. 7,991,380) and should be barred from importation. If their petition is granted, that would shut out Delorme’s popular inReach from U.S. consumers. Yellowbrick so far has only limited distribution, mostly in Europe, so that has limited direct impact on U.S. consumers.

BriarTek, Inc., a related company, licenses the BriarTek IP patent and manufactures and markets its Cerberus SEND and related smart phone applications and computer software.

By way of background, BriarTek filed a provisional patent application in March, 2006, for a “Global Bidirectional Locator Beacon and Emergency Communications System.” The patent was granted in August 2, 2011. It must be noted that grant of a patent doesn’t mean a patent is actually valid or enforceable, as many patents are later found to be invalid. The BriarTek patent is very broad in scope. It essentially claims invention of the entire concept of using satellites for 2-way text messaging distress beacons.

According to BriarTek President Joe Landa, BriarTek is simply interested in protecting its intellectual property and the investment it has made. He claims that he “doesn’t want to slow down release of any products into the market.” He explained that they had approached Delorme about licensing the patent prior to the filing and that is still BriarTek’s aim. He told me that he had extensive discussions with Delorme at the highest levels. “I offered Delorme a very reasonable license,” be said, but no agreement was reached. Yellowbrick was given 24-hour notice of the ITC filing. He explained that he “has long been a big proponent of getting these devices in the hands of the public,” and would “prefer to see more of them in use. ” Landa said in closing that he “cannot comment about any discussions either in the past or ongoing at this time that relate to the case or any potential settlements… We worked hard, we were awarded a patent, we hope others will respect our legal rights.”

This ITC complaint notice caught many in the industry by surprise. More on that later. Because of the very short eight-day timeframe provided for initial public comments on the complaint, only Delorme and Iridium filed comments (responses) opposing the complaint. (Click to read: Delorme Comments and Iridium Comments)

The ITC process is expedited compared to normal court proceedings. About 30 days after initial filing of the complaint, or in about one week, the ITC will institute the case (assuming all the legal requirements are met) and assign an administrative law judge (ALJ) to the case. The ALJ will set a target dates for the expedited process, which typically lasts from 9-18 months, but which can be extended. After motions and the like, the next big step will be an evidentiary hearing which is very similar to a federal trial. There is no option for a jury, the ALJ hears the case in accordance with administrative hearing rules.

After conclusion of the evidentiary hearing, the ALJ will issue an initial determination that is subject to review by the full Commission. At the stage they will publish a notice in the Federal Register seeking public comment on public interest issues and ALJ recommendations. That comment period is 30 days. Sixty days after notice is published the Commission will announce whether they will review the decision or not. At this juncture there’s another opportunity for the public to comment on public interest issues and ALJ recommendations If they chose not to review, the ALJ’s ruling becomes final. If reviewed, then they can reject the ALJ’s determination or modify it as they see fit. You can find an explanation for the ITC’s public interest accommodations here: http://usitc.gov/press_room/documents/featured_news/publicinterest_article.htm

Intellectual property is a key element in industrial development, but like anything given government sanction, patents can be abused. It is not uncommon for patent holders to demand licensing fees from existing commercial product manufacturers on patents. Then the issue becomes, is the patent is valid? The cost of challenging the patent must be weighed against the cost of litigation or paying a licensing fee. Certainly, those holding valid patents should expect to benefit from their efforts. If BriarTek’s patent claims are valid, it has every right to earn financial compensation for use of that patent.

If the patent is unquestionably valid, this is usually a fairly straightforward issue. After negotiations, the parties sign some form of licensing agreement and, typically, a royalty is paid to the patent holder. If there are issues with patent validity or if the demands for fees are outrageous, then the next step is typically either a request to re-evaluate the patent on the part of those accused of infringement , more on that later, or a lawsuit is filed by the patent holder where a judge or jury will eventually determine patent validity, damages and the like. Depending on how things are proceeding, a settlement may reached that resolves the issue, one way or another, prior to either effort coming to a conclusion.

When the alleged infringing product is imported, as is the case here, then the ITC can become another venue for the patent holder to assert pressure. Landa is quite clear that this is their goal, to pressure the parties to compensate them for use of their patent. And, he claims, “this is a less onerous process because it cannot reach back for damages and other claims.”

Anyone reading headlines about the patent battles occurring in the cell phone/smart phone/tablet wars will have some understanding of the stakes and the costs involved in protecting intellectual property.

Reading the Delorme Comments and Iridium Comments, they make the case that this ITC complaint should be rejected by the ITC due to the public interest issues alone, which are a significant area of concern for the ITC, as noted above. In their comments they assert that many of BrairTek’s claims of injury don’t hold water and that there is little question that consumers would be the losers.

A few weeks ago at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, I spoke with Landa about the Cerberus SEND and he specifically said their primary emphasis was on government and corporate markets. Given the relatively high cost of their Cerberus SEND, up to three times more than the inReach, that made a lot of sense. Their primary existing product line is comprised of Man Overboard Beacons and systems that are, likewise, primarily sold direct to the military and commercial/industrial market. They currently have no significant presence in the consumer marketplace. Cerberus is only available online from their own web site.

As Delorme points out in their filing, there appears little likelihood that BriarTek could fill the existing consumer market niche, and certainly not in a reasonable timeframe, due to their much higher price and limited manufacturing capacity as well as virtually no presence in the consumer marketplace. There is also little evidence that these other 2-way SENDs are actually harming BriarTek. Most critically, they claim that a decision in BrairTek’s favor could put lives at stake.

If the ITC decides on BriarTek’s behalf, it is certainly possible that, absent some licensing or other scheme being implemented, consumers will take a hit and a growing market in advanced 2-way SENDs will be nipped in the bud until it sorts itself out. That could take considerable time, perhaps years if Delorme decides to fight rather than come to some sort of financial agreement with BriarTek.

These 2-way SENDS offer significant advantages to someone in an emergency situation and the Search and Rescue community, alike, compared to traditional 1-way alerting, albeit this comes at a cost increase. So, it’s not for everyone. Having said that, this same communications capability in non-distress situations can make them much more appealing than a more simplistic distress beacon or SEND. That helps to drive sales.

Text communications are inherently less costly and more compact compared to voice communications capability. As such, the uptake by consumers will be far greater for a 2-way text device compared to a satellite phone. The more competition there is in this market, the better it is for consumers and the SAR community as more of these devices will end up in the hands of those in need. That will result in more lives saved and fewer SAR responders put at risk.

BriarTek has certainly got Iridium’s attention, evidenced by their comments. Iridium has worked hard the past few years promoting 2-way SENDs and encouraging companies to enter the market. I am aware of numerous such devices in the works. Iridium sells modems and satellite data plans, so the more SENDs, the better from their viewpoint. Iridium is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Without the Iridium satellite system, BriarTek is pretty much out of business. While it may not be able to cut BriarTek off “for cause” over this effort to monetize their patent, Iridium can certainly make their life difficult and could easily choose not to renew their agreement when the time comes.

Neither Delorme nor Iridium were willing to comment further due to the pending legal action, for the time being letting their public interest comments on the complaint stand on their own. Other companies with 2-way SEND devices in the works declined to go on the record. I can characterize their off-the-record comments as disdainful of BriarTek’s patent claims.

Beyond SENDs, if the patent was held to be valid, this could potentially impact the Next Generation COSPAS-SARSAT (MEOSAR) system which is currently in development with satellites and systems already being tested. That internationally supported distress alerting system allows for optional 2-way messaging incorporated into next generation 406 MHz EPIRBs, ELTs and PLBs.

There is also another issue, which may or may not bear on the legal side, but needs disclosure since this potentially affects many new SENDs in the pipeline and these devices are all about saving lives. The more SENDs out there, the more lives saved.

BriarTek, in its manufacturer guise, is a member of RTCM (Radio Technical Committee for Maritime) http://www.rtcm.org/ and Joe Landa was an active participant in the RTCM SC128 Special Committee that developed the SEND standard. That effort started in December, 2008, with the new standard being voted on in March, 2011, passing in May, http://www.equipped.org/blog/?p=331 and it was formally adopted on August 1, 2011. The FCC is a participant in RTCM committees and this SC128 standard has been forwarded to the FCC to be incorporated into FCC regulations. Delorme, as manufacturer of the inReach that was not yet released at the time that SC128 started work, was also a participant in the SC128 committee. Delorme’s current Vice President and General Manager, Patrick Shay, was employed by Iridium during that time period and was Iridium’s representative on the SC128 committee. He was also active in promoting 2-way SENDs via the ProTECTS Alliance (standing for Promotion of Two-way Emergency Communication and Tracking Systems) that Iridium initiated.

While the primary motivation for developing the SC128 standard was to protect consumers and ensure these devices work in emergency situations by setting a minimum level of performance, similar to the SC110 PLB standard, there’s no question that the SEND standard provided financial benefits to manufacturers. It essentially makes their conforming products more marketable and valuable.

RTCM has a long established policy that it “develop standards that do not require the use of patented technologies as the only means to comply with a standard (essential patents)” and that “Members of RTCM Special Committees and members of the RTCM Board of Directors should identify patented elements they are aware of which are included in any standard in preparation or revision.” In addition, “The ballot to approve every RTCM standard shall ask the member to identify any applicable patents they are aware of which are not identified in the standard.”

Having participated in SC128 meetings from the start, I can testify that I do not recall Landa ever once mention BriarTek’s pending patent, which would clearly be deemed an “essential patent” for any 2-way SEND. Checking with other SC128 members, nobody else that I spoke with recalls any such disclosure. Having said that, Landa claims that he recalls advising SC128 “that we had pending patents in this area. In general I do not comment on specific patents that are pending. I had no way at that time of knowing what claims would or would not be allowed or even if the patent would ever be awarded.”

Also, RTCM confirms that Landa did not vote on the standard, which may have required he disclose the patent on his ballot. I say “may,” because the patent at that time was still pending and the plain wording of the RTCM policy applies to issued patents. The consensus of those SC128 members I spoke with, who declined to be quoted on the record, is that Landa chose to not disclose a pending patent that could potentially affect many SEND manufacturers while he participated in developing a standard with many of those same manufacturers that could thereby enrich his company if he was awarded the patent and the patent is found to be valid.

It must be noted that while it appears that nobody else in the room was aware of the pending patent except Landa, at least those I spoke with, the patent application process is not confidential and patent applications are publicly available, with this patent application published October 7, 2007. Whether the other manufacturers at the table ought to have done a better job of keeping an eye on patent applications relating to their existing or potential products is another issue altogether.

The RTCM Board of Directors will take up this issue at their meeting the last week in September.

Consistent with Landa’s remarks to me, the assumption on the part of most I spoke with in the industry is that BriarTek’s ultimate goal is to license the patent or achieve some other form of financial settlement, which would give it a steady income stream from every 2-way SEND sold or a lump sum payment or something along those lines. The ITC action then is viewed as a way to assert pressure towards such an agreement. If a major player like Delorme signs, others would typically follow. That could take the validity of the patent out of play. The validity of the patent is the crux of the matter.

At this point, beyond dealing with the pending ITC complaint or acceding to BriarTek’s demands, Delorme certainly has the option of either requesting a re-examination of the patent due to documented prior art (meaning documentation that this capability covered by the patent existed or was discussed in some public forum prior to the patent application date) or filing a court challenge against BriarTek over the infringement claim that is contained in the ITC complaint. On balance, the expedited ITC process is likely its best choice. Note, however, that even if the ITC rules against BriarTek, including if it finds the patent to be invalid, that decision does not actually invalidate the patent and BriarTek could still file a lawsuit in Federal District Court. Not typically an effective strategy according to my sources, but…

With regards to the validity of that patent, ETS Foundation Board of Directors member, Scott Weide, an intellectual property attorney, provided this considerably simplified explanation of the issues:

The BriarTek patent claims some fairly broad concepts. For example, Claim 1 is generally directed to an emergency monitoring system which includes a user satellite communication device which communicates with a monitoring system via a satellite network, incorporates a GPS device, and where the user device includes a text entry device which is adapted to receive textual data entered by the user. During review of the patent, BriarTek argued that the feature of the user device having a text entry device adapted to receive textual data rendered the system unique over the prior art. The breadth of this claim certainly makes it subject to an invalidity attack.

While the U.S. Patent Office did not locate any prior art specifically disclosing a satellite communication system which allowed a user to input text, such prior art may still exist (in other literature or use not located by the Patent Office) such that the invention claimed in Claim 1 is not novel under U.S. patent laws (as we note below, it appears that could be the case – DR).

In addition, the claims of the BriarTek patent may be invalid based upon obviousness. Under Section 103 of the U.S. patent laws, a claimed invention is obvious, and thus not patentable, if the differences between the claimed subject matter and the prior art are such that the subject matter as a whole would have been obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains (in other words, if someone knowledgeable regarding the subject would consider the invention an obvious next step, it isn’t patentable – DR).

BriarTek admits that satellite distress communication systems incorporating GPS which did not have text input/transmission functionality existed at the time of the invention. At the same time, user communication devices with text entry features and the ability to transmit textual data over a communication system were well known in other communications systems (beepers, cellular phones, etc.). Thus, although satellite distress communications systems may not have been implemented specifically with text transmission capabilities, it doesn’t appear to be because the feature wasn’t within the knowledge of one of ordinary skill in the art. In fact, it would be obvious to just about anyone that it was just a matter of time before that capability would be implemented via satellite.

One example of prior art may be found in the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS) which was seen as the next generation of distress system, building on the first generation COSPAS-SARSAT 406 MHz system. Many of the DASS concepts have evolved into the COSPAS-SARSAT Next Generation (MEOSAR) System. DASS originated back in 1998 and in February 2003, NASA, NOAA, the USAF, the USCG, and the DOE signed a Memorandum of Agreement regarding DASS development and demonstration. From the start, 2-way messaging was a key element of DASS. A published DASS document notes “the system also has the potential of providing additional one-way or two-way, non-vocal digital messaging.” Clearly, this predates the BriarTek patent submission.

Another example of a system that appears to have incorporated all the elements of the patent claims in prior art is the Volvo SeaKey system, first deployed in the early 2000’s. This maritime system uses the Orbcomm satellite system to provide tracking and distress alerting and response via text.

At this point there are a lot of accusations being flung around, often contradictory. Ultimately, I think this will resolve itself, either because the patent is invalidated or a settlement is reached on licensing terms if the patent looks to held up as valid.

Speaking to industry members, who spoke to me on condition of confidentiality, it seems clear that BriarTek’s patent will be challenged with support from at least most of those potentially affected. The cost to both parties, BriarTek and those opposed to this action and the validity of the patent, will be high, no matter the outcome. That will inevitably be reflected in the price of these SENDs.

Stay tuned for further developments.


Updated December 3, 2014: BriarTek’s patent claims relating to 2-way Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SENDs) have been invalidated in a federal court ruling that granted summary judgement to Delorme. While the ruling makes interesting reading, if you are so inclined (Click here for links to the ruling download or viewing), the bottom line from District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema was that “all the asserted claims have been found to be invalid as a matter of law over the prior art, either as anticipated or as obvious,” and therefore BriarTek’s patent was invalid.

BriarTek’s patent claims threatened to strangle expansion and innovation is this increasingly popular distress beacon market. At best, the patent claims would increase the cost of the devices for consumers, which inevitably discourage purchase and their subsequent use to save lives.

July 28, 2012

After 13 Years Life Raft Aerospace Standard AS1356 Published!

Filed in Musings

Call me persistent, call me stubborn, call me crazy–what started as a small test and evaluation of aviation life rafts nearly 20 years ago for The Aviation Consumer has finally resulted in a new and vastly improved SAE Aerospace Standard for aviation life rafts, AS1356. This new standard addresses many of the serious deficiencies that I uncovered in a series of three groundbreaking life raft evaluations, as well as subsequent tests.

Over a decade and a half ago I first got involved in the SAE International Aerospace Council, Aircraft Division, S9 Cabin Safety Provisions Committee and S9A Safety Equipment and Survival Systems Sub-Committee. These committees develop standards, procedures and recommended practices for related systems on transport category aircraft, some of which, such as this life raft standard, are also applicable to General Aviation. The SAE aerospace documents generated by these committees form the basis for many new, revised and updated TSOs (Technical Standard Orders), ACs (Advisory Circulars), and FARs (Federal Air Regulations) issued by the FAA. I am the only consumer and General Aviation advocate that sits on these committees.

One of my prime motivations to joining these committees was those disappointing early evaluations of aviation life rafts. Since the FAA was already moving towards using SAE standards to develop new and updated TSOs (the standards to which aviation devices must be certified), it seemed like a unique opportunity to help change things for the better. The then Aerospace Recommended Practice ARP1356 for Life Rafts came up for review in 1999 and at the request of the FAA, S9 undertook the task of converting it to an Aerospace Standard that the FAA could use as the basis to update TSO C70a, the existing life raft TSO.

Thirteen years later, AS1356 – Life Rafts has finally been published. It is not a record for time taken to update a standard, but it is up near there. I’d love to tell you we are now done, but this is only the first step. Next the FAA has to review the AS and write a revised TSO C70b that incorporates this AS. That process is itself fraught with potholes. The FAA can simply accept AS1356 as written, or it can add requirements that may go beyond those in the AS and/or it can roll back some of the advances we have incorporated. It is likely that the new TSO will only apply to new life raft certifications and old designs will continue to be manufactured in accordance with prior, less stringent approvals.

Then, once the FAA has initially developed the revised TSO, they will publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) giving everyone, including the public, a crack at the proposal (more on that later, as well). Submitted comments, pro and con, will then need to be dealt with by the FAA and may result in further revision to the TSO before the final version is published. On rare occasions a further NPRM is published, if the changes are significant. This process could take anywhere from a year or more. I wouldn’t bet on an easy and quick rulemaking process.

AS1356 was developed through a collaborative process that is typical of standards development by the many standard setting organizations that exist. Ideally, all the interested parties from industry, government and, in this case, end users, work together to arrive at a consensus, which generally means that everyone has to compromise to some degree. The end result is equal parts liked and disliked, but all have bought into the final version.

The original draft of AS1356 by myself and Tom Anderson of Goodrich, those many years ago, was a compilation of the lessons learned from the groundbreaking Equipped To Survive life raft tests and evaluations and Tom’s decades of experience in the life raft business and as an FAA Designated Engineering Representative at Goodrich. We’d seen the good, the bad and the ugly, and this was a unique opportunity to aim towards the best. In the end, I think the result is pretty damn good, if not the very best it might have been, but that it the nature of this process and by and large it works.

While AS1356 doesn’t go as far as I would have liked in some respects, this new standard is a huge step forward compared to the existing inadequate TSO C70a, which is hopelessly outdated. Using TSO C70a and ARP1356 as a start, no section was left untouched and all were improved, many dramatically.

With only a few problematic exceptions, the new requirements are now performance based, meaning that how the designers and engineers attain the required performance is not mandated, just the end result. Performance based standards don’t tell you what to build or how to build it, they just lay out what level of performance, in terms of a testable goal, needs to be met. This allows for more innovation as new technologies are developed and we are no longer saddled with decades-old mandated technology. Not every single part of the standard could be so specified, there are still a few areas where testing would be so difficult or expensive that mandates are still included, but the vast majority are performance based.

We also strove to ensure a level playing field for all manufacturers and to protect end users by closing obvious loopholes and spelling out previously vague or ill-defined requirements. These flaws allowed life rafts to be approved in the past that really did not meet the existing TSO without straining credulity and some gave a particular manufacturer an advantage over others. It has to be understood that the FAA does not have much, if any, technical expertise in life raft design and manufacturing. So, when approving a TSO, in the past it has been relatively easy for a persuasive sales engineer to convince the FAA representative(s) involved that a particularly inventive interpretation was valid. Some other manufacturer may not be so “lucky.” Hopefully, there will be far fewer opportunities for that to occur with AS1356. This helps ensure that the end user who is depending upon this life raft to save their life is really getting the minimum level of lifesaving performance they should expect and nobody is penalized in the market.

In a number of instances we compromised by adopting somewhat less stringent standards for large life rafts used in transport category aircraft compared to smaller life rafts used in General Aviation aircraft. This was rationalized by the fact that these smaller life rafts are subject to potentially more adverse conditions for longer periods of time due to the diverse nature of General Aviation flying and because the larger life rafts used in transport category aircraft generally have trained crews and their size alone compensates for some otherwise more problematic issues. I didn’t always agree with some of these compromises, but as indicated, that is often the price paid for moving things forward and we worked hard to hold the line where it counted the most. Generally, I believe that we succeeded. This standard is somewhat unique in that it covers life rafts ranging from one- and two-persons to over 50 persons. There are, indeed, some practical differences between the aircraft on which they are carried and the likely circumstances of use in an emergency.

You’re probably wondering where the link is to the new AS1356. Well, that is another ongoing frustration. If you want to review it, which you ought to be able to do freely in order to understand and comment upon it, as is your right, you have to pay SAE $66. SAE does make its standards available for you to review at a very few selected libraries and document repositories, but it does not generally make them easily and readily accessible to the public, absent some extraordinary action.

In any case, as the NPRM process moves forward I will be publishing my extensive comments submitted to FAA so that anyone interested will be better able to understand the document and why these changes are critical of improving aviation safety.

Thirteen years is a damn long time and a lot of travel to committee meetings held all over the U.S. I estimate that it has taken somewhere around $30,000 to fund my participation in S9 over these past 13 years! While this standard was not the sole reason I participate in SAE S9, it has been one of the driving forces. ETS doesn’t get financial support from industry or the government for these activities. I am the only advocate representing you, the GA pilot or airline passenger, at these meetings. Please consider making a contribution to support my work on your behalf.

December 10, 2011

GGGH = Great Gear Gifts for the Holidays

Filed in Musings

I don’t care if you have been naughty or nice, ‘tis the season for me to make a list of everything from stocking stuffers to ultimate gifts that would make anyone who enjoys the outdoors smile.

I know, you are thinking this is just about me and my Doug Ritter Gear, but read on; there is more than just my gear, these are just great gifts for your favorite outdoor enthusiast, hunter, pilot, hiker or someone who loves “great gear.” This is gear that I would “bet my life on.” Much of this follows my mantra of “if it isn’t with you, it can’t save you™.” Any of it will earn you big smiles.

Stocking Stuffers

There’s no excuse not to always have a flashlight with you with the proliferation of compact LED flashlights. My Doug Ritter Special Edition Photon Freedom Micro-Light is available again and at a reduced price, only $15.95. It has a great feature set and will hardly be noticeable on a key chain, so it will always be there when you need it.

I am also a big fan of headlamps because they allow you to have both hands free to do whatever needs doing. There is no shortage of good headlamps out there, but Princeton Tec has a unique and fun offering that may be worth taking a look at. Over at Princeton Tec’s Spectrum program you can customize a Fuel headlamp with your choice of body colors. When they introduced this service to journalists earlier this year, I did up one with a bright yellow body and red end caps. The Fuel is a nice mid-range headlamp that runs on AAA batteries. Their Remix (not customizable at this time) is a similar design that adds a high output 100 lumen LED.

For a compact survival headlamp, having a switch that cannot readily be inadvertently switched on in storage, the Petzl e+Lite is a great choice with multiple light output options, plus a red LED, and the eGear EQ2 is a minimalist single LED design that is ultralight and compact, if more basic (and less expensive).

The original best-selling Pocket Survival Pak™ I designed is still going strong and is still a perfect gift for anyone who is active in the outdoors. All the essentials in a compact waterproof pouch that weighs under 4 oz., truly does fit in a pocket and really could save yourself, a loved one or friend’s life. This is the epitome of “if it isn’t with you, it can’t save you™” gear and this kit is sized right to always be with you.

Add an Adventure Medical Kits Two Person SOL Survival Blanket (which is really sized just right for one-person), and you’ve got a perfect pocket-sized shelter companion to the PSP. The polyethylene material is far superior to old-style Mylar emergency blankets.

I always carry at least two, and usually three, means to start a fire. It is really that important. Besides a compact lighter, reliable matches are a good choice. For many years I have recommended REI’s Stormproof wind- and waterproof matches. Now these same reliable matches are available more widely under the UCO brand and, even better, they are now also available pre-packaged in a waterproof vial, so that you can be confident that the striker strip, which is not waterproof itself, will be dry as well. These are the matches I include in my Ultimate Survival Pak™.

Last year we introduced the Pocket Survival Pak™ PLUS, which adds a number of other useful items (compact RSK® Mk5 knife, LED flashlight, water purification and water bag), to the PSP to further enhance a survivor’s prospects. The upgraded waterproof pouch is even tougher and it still fits in your pocket.

Sharp Stuff

This is a great time to get a Doug Ritter RSK® knife with virtually all models and variations in stock and KnifeWorks.com offering FREE GROUND SHIPPING in the USA on all the RSK® knives (except the Mk5)! You will also receive a FREE Maxpedition Waterproof Pocket Notebook ($5.50 value) with each order (while supplies last).

My acclaimed RSK® Mk1 and Mini-RSK® Mk1 Axis Lock folders are still going strong, more popular than ever, which is gratifying.

“Using this knife is a joy, and I can’t really find anything I dislike about it. It’s a tough choice now on whether to carry this, or much more expensive custom folders.” – T. Young – Simi Valley, CA

We just got in the first run of the orange-handled Mini-RSK® Mk1s, matching the orange RSK® Mk1 we’ve offered for a few years now. The Mini is now available in Black, Yellow, Orange and Pink. When you purchase a Pink Mini, 10% of the purchase price supports women’s cancer research.

The second run of my RSK® Mk2 Perseverance fixed blade with Variable Personal Balance™ is now available and is getting rave reviews. Here’s what Tactical Knives had to say:

“a well-balanced combination of Ritter’s thoughts on portability, balance and control, and (Ethan) Becker’s beliefs on power, strength and durability to withstand the abuse knives often suffer…” and “…the RSK Mk2 can give the user the edge needed to persevere and overcome even the harshest of environments.”

My RSK® Mk3 fixed blade is again available, now with an improved sheath. Its versatile drop point blade in CPM S30V and sculpted ergonomic G10 handles combine to make it a perfect choice for many, be they hunters or those looking for a quality and lightweight fixed blade for outdoor sports or survival.

“…more than strong enough to handle any requirement…handled very well and showed no sign of weakness in strength or materials…” – Terrill Hoffman in Tactical Knives. “Long story short, I love the knife! …G-10 scales, with S30V steel, full tang construction, stone washed finished without having to pay custom prices $$$$$…!” - TJ – Denver, CO

If a very compact knife to fit in a survival kit is what you are looking for, I suggest you consider my RSK® Mk5 skeletonized fixed blade. This diminutive knife will perform many a chore and was designed originally for my Pocket Survival Pak™ PLUS, but is now available from any CRKT dealer.

If you are looking for a slightly larger, but still compact skeletonized fixed blade, the Becker Knife & Tool BK-14 Eskabar, an Ethan Becker and ESSE Knives collaboration, is a great choice, or the ESEE IZULA is available in a multitude of colors including don’t-lose-me orange and Zombie venom green.

Get Rescued™ NOW!

Nobody goes out intending to end up needing rescue. By the same token, anyone who goes into the outdoors, on land or sea, or who flies by general aviation, and who expects that it can’t happen to them is simply in denial. Stuff happens that you cannot control, no matter how good or talented you may be. Once you get over the can’t-happen-to-me syndrome, the next question is what to do about this? The answer is simple, ensure that when it does happen you get rescued in the shortest possible time, because time is often your enemy. There is no excuse today for not carrying some means of signaling distress with your location.

For well under $300 you can get a 406 MHz Personal locator Beacon (PLB) with integral GPS that is about the size of many cell phones, weighs less than 5 ounces and easily fits in your pocket. With a simple press of a button your distress alert is sent out through the international COSPAS-SARSAT distress satellites and help will be quickly on its way. There is no recurring charge or subscription and the battery has a replacement interval of 6 years (by which time it will be smaller and cheaper, so you won’t replace the battery anyway).

Essentially, with a PLB you can ensure that you will get rescued with minimal fuss, much less risk on the part of Search and Rescue and far less concern on the part of your loved ones. The PLB takes the “search” out of Search and Rescue. Anyone who ventures into the outdoors without a PLB or some means of communicating their distress (and a cell phone doesn’t count) is irresponsible and not the brightest bulb on the tree, in my opinion.

My current recommendation for a PLB, and the one that I carry, is the ACR ResQLink Model PLB 375. If you don’t have a PLB, or if yours is over three or four years old, just get one!

As an aside, carrying a PLB doesn’t mean you don’t have to carry essential survival equipment (see above). Weather and other issues can delay rescue. You still have to be prepared to survive at least overnight and perhaps longer in more extreme environments.

Saving the best for last, I offer up the Doug Ritter Ultimate Survival Pak™. Originally developed for pilots, this survival kit also become popular for those who want the very best while traveling, living in an earthquake zone or who reside where severe weather is a regular occurrence. The Ultimate Survival Pak™ is designed for two people and includes all essentials for 72 hours. Options are available to expand coverage to three or more persons. I build Doug Ritter Survival Paks like my life depended upon it…because your life might™.

“I wanted to very best for my family and that’s what I found in your Ultimate Survival Pak. It provides great peace of mind knowing that I’ve got everyone covered with the best I can possibly have onboard.” C. H., Long Island, NY

Remember, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Doug Ritter Gear supports the non-profit Equipped To Survive Foundation and this web site.

Wishing you the very best for the holidays and the coming new year.