“As inventors ourselves, we think this was already trivial somewhere around the year 1900 (the invention of radio).”
The purpose of Project Troglodyte is to hunt for bad patents and to show what went wrong. For more information, please see the web page.
SYSTEMS AND METHODS FOR REMOTE IRRIGATION CONTROL
[Writers: Jakke Mäkelä and Niko Porjo]
On June 5, 2012, a patent was granted (US8193930) named “Systems and methods for remote irrigation control”. The patent holder can now claim to own the following invention: someone has a rain sensor standing in a field; that rain sensor sends rain data to someone over a wireless network; and that information is used to control water sprinklers.
If we were to summarize our understanding of the patent, we would say it consists of saying in a complex way: “Remove the wire and insert equipment to make a wireless connection”. As inventors ourselves, we think this was already trivial somewhere around the year 1900 (the invention of radio). In the Appendix, we try to show this in much more detail.
We take a clinically analytical perspective here. We might not personally like this patent, and we see potential risks in it, but it is entirely up to the patent owner what happens with it. As we pointed out in The Trolling Triad, not everything is a patent troll that is called a patent troll.
Disclaimer: we are NOT talking about legal issues. In the patent world, it is the claims that are argued about in court. We are interested in the technical descriptions, that is, the new information that society gained by granting the patent. After all, that is the whole tradeoff behind the patent system; in exchange for a temporary monopoly to the patent holder, society gets full disclosure of what was invented.
We see nothing new here, hence no benefit to society.
The main risk we see with this patent is the precedent. In the wrong hands, this patent is broad enough to cause problems to anyone dependent on irrigation. The main group at risk are small US companies who design or manufacture systems for irrigation control. A Google search with “irrigation control company” quickly brings up such a list.
This patent is spurious enough that it really is difficult to work around. There are two ways to achieve such a blanket: by being very good, or by being very vague. The patent certainly does not fall into the category of “very good”.
The deadening effect of spurious patents on the software industry is well known (see EFF). If such practices start to flow into industries that deal with crucial services, such as irrigation or food production, it is a bad precedent. Innovation in this area will slow, and prices will rise due to the additional licensing costs. This can have a high societal impact in the long run.
TECHNICAL APPENDIX: IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS OF THE DESCRIPTIONThe patent description is written around the figures and the dissection below follows this partition and may thus handle several paragraphs in one go. There is a short plain text summary of the patent text related to each figure, given in italics and followed by our comment. Each figure and its description will be analyzed and it will be shown that the description of the invention offers nothing new, in fact in terms of technology most of the content is positively ancient. It should be noted that many of the examples given as prior art fit more than one part of the description. The technical field is described as follows “…remotely operated systems, and more particularly to a computerized system for monitoring, reporting on, and controlling remote systems by transferring information signals through a wide area network (WAN) and using software applications hosted on a connected server to appropriately process the information.” Fig 1. Describes shortcomings of prior systems, the main message is that wires are required to connect sensor actuators to controllers and further to more remote computers or humans running decision making algorithms and finally to power sources. —– For example this Skylab Saturn IB Flight Manual describes how a range safety officer could use a wireless connection to trigger destruction of the vehicle based on part on telemetry readings received from the vehicle. Tracking stations forming a wireless network around the world were used to send and receive telemetry data. —– Radioisotope thermoelectric generators have been used to power both lighthouses and monitoring equipment on earth. In a less extreme example mobile phones have always been battery powered and since they include a microphone (sensor) and an actuator (vibrating alert) they can be called a sensor actuator. Thus the problem of wired connections for data and power for remote units has been solved a long time ago by using wireless radio technologies. Fig 2. According to the text fairly complex network can be constructed with wireless transceivers connecting the sensor actuators through local controllers to a network. Specific software can be run on different nodes, connections can be one way, wireless communications can be established through several nodes if they are in range and data can be gathered by and commands can be sent from computers on the network. —– Two abbreviations: GSM and SMS. A GSM network consists of back end infrastructure (computers, wires…) connected to base stations through either wired or in some cases wireless two way data network. Mobile devices are connected to the base stations by a radio frequency link. While in a digital system all information is transferred as digital data, the Short Message System offers an example where the originating data is something else than audio. —– Handheld radio transceivers or walkie-talkies have been around since at least WWII, the technical task of integrating one of these with a mobile phone and others with sensors to create a sub network of sensors is straightforward. —– As mentioned in the description each node of a network can and usually does host application specific software, for example mobile devices with the “Nokia OS” have been sold in their billions. Fig 3A. Describes for example a subset of functions of a mobile phone. —– But very superficially. Fig 3B. Describes for example a more restricted subset of functions of a mobile phone and mentions the emergency call function. —– But very superficially. Fig 3C. Compared to 3A and 3B an actuator is added. —– Using a radio transmitter such as a mobile phone or a walkie talkie to control an actuator is a trivial exercise and has been around since the 1960s in the form of RC toys. Fig 3D. Describes how predetermined codes are coupled with sensor outputs and transmitted to appropriate network nodes. —– This is a simplified example where a lookup table has only four alternate states. A vocoder offers the same function, information from the sensor (microphone) is coded to relatively few states that then sent over the network. Fig 3E. Adds a GPS receiver. —– Mobile phones have included GPS receivers since about 1999 but as will be discussed below aircraft altitude information has been transmitted in wireless networks long before that, replacing the altitude information source with a 3D location source is not inventive. Fig 4. Describes a generic data processing unit with data connectivity and ability to take actions based on the data it receives. —– It is very generic and could for example represent a computer in a mobile base station. Fig 5. Similarly to Fig 4 a very generic description of a Wide Area Network is given and it is mentioned that one of the local controllers can be attached to a WAN. —– A mobile base station might have a WAN connection and in many cases has a wired connection either over an IP network or for example a telephone network. Fig 6. Is an application of some of the preceding ideas to a “utility meter monitoring system”. —– It fails to include the idea of being able to cut the supply in case the bills are not paid. As general technologies for creating exactly this type of networks have been shown above to have existed for a long time this application is not new. Fig 7. Is an application of the preceding description to automotive fault code transmission. A car with On Board Diagnostics connected to a transceiver for communication. —– This is again a variation of telemetry. In Formula One these systems apparently surfaced in the early 1990s. As an example 2-way telemetry is mentioned casually in this June 1993 issue of Popular Mechanics. Data transmission from a pit computer through a telephone network using a modem would have been a trivial exercise. Fig 8. Is an application of the preceding description to an irrigation system. —– It’s a wirelessly transmitting weather station and a remote controlled actuator in the same box while the decision algorithm runs on a remote computer. Fig 9. As Fig 8 but applied to a parking facility. —– It’s a parking facility with wires replaced by wireless connections. Fig 10. Introduces a system that monitors and controls all of the applications of Figs 7 through 9, instead of a dedicated monitor / controller for each system. It also says that some of the hardware of co located applications may be shared. —– A network server may be in connection with several mobile phones each connected to a different computer through a BT connection acting as a modem, each of those computers may in turn be controlling a Mars rover through the Deep Space Network while simultaneously communicating with a different server running World of Warcraft. ——— On a more serious note, a system or computer receiving interrogation information from several air traffic control radars is monitoring several networks of transponders simultaneously. The basic technology has been around since WWII as can be seen for example from this 1965 issue of Popular Science; for obvious reasons it is wireless. Further as several radars can see the same transponders, several monitoring systems can receive information from the same radars (i.e. civil and military controllers) and the radars can belong to different networks (i.e. be part of networks in different countries) equipment reuse on several levels has also been around for some time. Fig 11. Describes a message data structure with error indication. —– See this document for a short description of how morse code messages are formatted. This book gives more general data structures for communication. A short introduction to error correction can be seen here. Fig 12. Shows several examples of the message structure and explains how the devices can be pinged to check their and the networks health. —– Ping has been around since 1983. Almost any digital network requires a message structure to be able to route messages to correct destinations (IP). Fig 13. Describes a data translator that converts signals in a legacy system to function codes. These codes can then be transmitted through transceiver(s) until they reach a WAN. —– This is the same as attaching a wireless telemetry module to an existing wired network. Fig 14. Describes how one of the sensor actuators having a transceiver may be integrated to a ship, plane, car etc. And how this unit can then be used to collect information. —– Again the reader is encouraged to see Skylab Saturn IB Flight Manual for a description of how telemetry is used in rocketry. For a more recent system see patent 5,890,079.