It’s not something typically on the forefront of the minds of most people, but it surely strikes fear in anyone seriously contemplating it: the idea of being lost in space. Poor George Clooney in the movie Gravity, just floating away into the abyss, without any means to return to safety! If he only had some way…some “return home button” of sorts….
Astronauts and the public alike can rest easy, as engineers have recently filed a patent US 20170192425 A1 for a spacesuit self-return system to ensure spacewalking astronauts are safe, even in the event that none of their crewmates can rescue them.
Upon seeing this news, my first thought was that such a suit would of course need sensors, a navigation system of some sort, some *safe* means of propelling the person through space, etc. With the recent advancements in autonomous vehicle technology, I was especially curious as to how such a spacesuit self-return system might be claimed in a patent filing, to differentiate it from something like an autonomous vehicle which similarly needs to be able to “return” to a particular destination without the help of a vehicle operator.
Looking at the first independent claim of US 20170192425 A1, what is claimed is an EVA (extravehicular activity) self-return system comprising a sensor configured to monitor a parameter of a suit, a navigation module in communication with the sensor and capable of determining a current location of the suit in relation to a fixed reference point, a guidance module in communication with the navigation module configured to compute a trajectory from the current location of the suit, an interface configured to be in communication with a propulsive system, and a control module in communication with the guidance module configured to transmit instructions to the propulsive system to propel the suit to the fixed reference point along the computed trajectory.
While the claim language of US 20170192425 A1 is directed towards a suit and states that the self-return system is for “extravehicular activity”, in all other aspects the system essentially reads on the types of systems described in patents filed for autonomous vehicles, which invariably include one or more sensor(s), a navigation module in communication with said sensor(s) (e.g. GPS), a guidance module, a propulsive system (e.g. engine), etc. Thus, this represents an example where, in attempting to utilize broad claim language, the resulting language essentially describes a known system, in this case an autonomous vehicle. Therefore, the take-home message is that while it is preferable to try and get broad claims for a particular invention, it is equally important to include language in the specification that can be used in prosecution, to further differentiate the invention from prior art, especially in a case where the claim language may likely be interpreted as reading on other, similar systems. In practice, we encounter such issues frequently in prosecution, where language used to claim a particular invention reads on another (sometimes only remotely-related) patented invention. Thus, something we highly recommend is that when drafting a specification, one should draft alternative claim language and include such language in the specification as separate embodiments of the invention. In this way, you are not limited to one approach if a first attempt at claim language is interpreted as reading on other prior art systems. For example, we recommend drafting anywhere from one to three or four alternative independent claims, each with unique language that can readily be relied upon in prosecution. Including such alternative language can make the difference between getting an invention allowed and being forced to abandon the application altogether.
So, in light of these issues, US 20170192425 A1 should be a particularly interesting case to follow to see how examiners interpret the claim language and how the language is modified in prosecution to differentiate from other prior art systems.