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Thales Visionix Inc. v. US

March 08, 2017

Federal Circuit No. 2015-5150

Author: Loren Tung

Thales is only the eighth Federal Circuit conclusion of eligible subject matter under 35 U.S.C. § 101 since Alice in 2014.  The eligible subject matter of Thales may be one of the better examples in the electrical/mechanical arts.

Plaintiff Thales appealed from the U.S. Court of Federal Claims judgement that claims of U.S. Patent No. 6,474,159 are directed to ineligible subject matter, i.e., an abstract idea of using mathematical equations.  Prior to the ‘159 Patent, a system for tracking motion of an object relative to a moving platform included at least three sensors: 1) an inertial sensor on the object and measuring motion relative to the Earth; 2) an inertial sensor on the moving platform and measuring motion relative to the Earth; and 3) an error-correcting sensor on the object and measuring a position relative to the moving platform, as shown and annotated in FIGS. 3A and 3B reproduced below.  However, the system tracked inconsistent positions when the moving platform accelerated or turned.

The ‘159 Patent teaches a system for tracking motion of an object relative to a moving platform including at least two sensors: 1) an inertial sensor on the moving platform and measuring a gravitational field in the moving platform; and 2) an inertial sensor on an object and measuring a position relative to the moving platform, as shown and annotated in FIG. 3C reproduced below.  The ‘159 system increases accuracy of measurements made when the moving platform accelerated or turned, and includes less hardware

Independent claim 1 of the ‘159 Patent recites (emphasis added):

A system for tracking the motion of an object relative to a moving reference frame, comprising:

a first inertial sensor mounted on the tracked object;

a second inertial sensor mounted on the moving reference frame; and

an element adapted to receive signals from said first and second inertial sensors and configured to determine an orientation of the object relative to the moving reference frame based on the signals received from the first and second inertial sensors.

As the emphasized language claims a mathematical equation, the U.S. Court held that claim 1 is directed to an abstract idea.

The Federal Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that the claims are directed to eligible subject matter, i.e., not an abstract idea.  The Federal Circuit primarily asserted that the claims are "nearly indistinguishable" from the claims in Diamond v. Diehr, 450 U.S. 175 (1981):

"The navigation equations in the '159 patent are derived from [a] particular arrangement of sensors. … While the claims utilize mathematical equations to determine the orientation of the object relative to the moving reference frame, the equations—dictated by the placement of the inertial sensors and application of laws of physics—serve only to tabulate the position and orientation information in this configuration. This arrangement is analogous to the claims in Diehr, which required the temperature measurement 'at a location closely adjacent to the mold cavity in the press during molding.'"

The Federal Circuit further asserted that the claims result in additional technical benefits, such as the system working with any type of moving platform, the system being simpler to install than conventional systems, and the system being self-contained, i.e., requiring no external information about the orientation or position of the platform.

The Federal Circuit summarized, "Far from claiming the equations themselves, the claims seek to protect only the application of physics to the unconventional configuration of sensors as disclosed" (emphasis added).  It is interesting to note that claim 1 above does not particularly claim the application of physics to the unconventional configuration of the sensors, but only alludes to such features in the determining function.

In view of Thales, a claimed equation alone may no longer be an abstract idea, if the equation is an application of physics to an unconventional configuration of sensors as disclosed and not necessarily claimed.  Also, technical benefits of claimed inventions should continue to be included in specifications and arguments in the USPTO for subject-matter eligibility under § 101.