A new patent awarded to Seattle-based rocket company Blue Origin is raising eyebrows.

United States Patent Number 8,408,497 was awarded on April 2. The patent covers “Launch vehicles with fixed and deployable deceleration surfaces, and/or shaped fuel tanks, and associated systems and methods.”

The patent has come as a surprise to many observers since the inventions described therein are not original to Blue Origin but are based on prior art in the field of rocket design.

The first few drawings show an aerodynamic decelerator wrapped around the vehicle like a collar and opens like a parasol:

Blue Origin patent drawings

This decelerator, or drag brake, is almost identical to the drag brake designed by Len Cormier for the Michelle-B, which TGV Rockets worked on under funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) from 2003 to 2007:

TGV Rockets Michelle-B

TGV Rockets did not attempt to patent the concept, however. Apparently, they considered the use of a deplorable surface to increase drake to be “obvious to those versed in the art” and therefore not patentable. (Flaps and drag brakes have been used on aircraft for decades.)

Other illustrations show a vehicle with four separate flaps, instead of the parasol arrangement:

Blue Origin patent drawings

This flap arrangement is similar to that used by McDonnell Douglas on the Delta Clipper Experimental, which flew in the 1990’s, and even earlier on maneuvering reentry vehicles (warheads) for ICBMs. The DC-X flaps can be seen clearly in the following video (which has no sound):

Not only are these inventions based on prior art by other inventors, many observers also feel they are obvious to those versed in the art, which should make them unpatentable under US law. The willingness of patent inspectors to issue such dubious patents is becoming a concern to many in the industry.

The fear of patent wars spurs some companies to take out “defensive patents,” which they may never intend to enforce, to preclude a competitors from filing a patent and suing for infringement. The result is a patent arms race.

The problem of “junk patents” leading to patent wars is not unique to the space industry. It is a growing problem in other fields, such as electronics and computing. Inventors trying to patent previous work is an old story. Benjamin Franklin complained about it in his autobiography. Writing of the Franklin stove, he said, “An ironmonger in London however, assuming a good deal of my pamphlet, and working it up into his own, and making some small changes in the machine, which rather hurt its operation, got a patent for it there, and made, as I was told, a little fortune by it. And this is not the only instance of patents taken out for my inventions by others.”

There is common agreement that the problem is worse now than in the past, however. It’s the job of patent inspectors to prevent such abuses, however. In the 20th Century, Albert Einstein worked as a patent inspector for the Swiss Patent Office. He was passed over for promotion, however, because he was not considered sufficiently knowledgeable. The quality of work we expect from patent inspectors seems to have declined markedly since that time.

Written by Astro1 on April 30th, 2013 , Blue Origin

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COMMENTS
    Gary C Hudson commented

    The General Dynamics Millennium Express SSTO concept for the SSRT program also showed flaps identical to Figure 4. As did a GD Mars lander concept in the book “The Emigrant Trail” in 1988.

    See, for example:

    http://www.spacefuture.com/archive/single_stage_to_orbit_vertical_takeoff_and_landing_concept_technology_challenges.shtml

    Reply
    May 1, 2013 at 1:10 pm
    Former commented

    Blue Origin has adopted the approach of veiling everything in legalese and patents, while at the same time they have produced absolutely nothing of value to the industry or populace. Their lawyer works overtime and is a bit on the, uh, zealous side. They say they do this stuff so they can focus on the technical aspects of the job, yet a significant amount of time at Blue Origin is spent worrying about nondisclosure agreements, visitors, and secrecy.

    Reply
    May 2, 2013 at 9:19 am
    Hector commented

    Since the technology was available in the public domain prior to the patent application it would make the broader claim probably unenforceable. The rest of the patent such as any special techniques to make it happen might be enforceable. You have to look at the claims, not the drawings. The claims are what makes the patent enforceable. They may not have patented the broader concept, but rather specific improvements to the broader concept.

    Reply
    May 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm