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