Hoyt Augustus Fleming obtained a patent for an “intelligent” ballistic parachute system, which can be used to slow the descent of a failing aircraft. Before or after the ballistic parachute is activated, the system controls the aircraft’s flight, similar to how an autopilot can be used, allowing the ballistic parachute to become fully inflated and functional.
Cirrus Design Corporation challenged the patent in an inter partes review (IPR) proceeding at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) found Mr. Fleming’s patent obvious, and the Federal Circuit has now affirmed.
The challenge for Mr. Fleming’s patent was that it was known that ballistic parachutes are best deployed in certain flight conditions, and that autopilot systems were known for controlling the flight of an airplane, making it obvious to combine those systems, as the PTAB found and Federal Circuit agreed. He tried to push back by claiming that autopilot systems were not advised for the emergency situations when a ballistic parachute would be most useful, but the Federal Circuit noted that autopilot feature could be used continuously or could be helpful in a contemplated use of ballistic parachute—pilot incapacitation, also noting that the obviousness inquiry does not require that the prior art combination is the “preferred, or the most desirable” configuration: “That the prior art cautioned pilots not to use an autopilot in some emergency situations on some aircraft does not mean that the skilled artisan would have been dissuaded from doing so in all emergency situations on all aircraft.”
The Federal Circuit also felt the PTAB handled Mr. Fleming’s evidence of “copying” appropriately, finding a declaration he wrote did not meaningfully show how Cirrus’ product infringed his patent and crediting testimony from Cirrus’s Chief Engineer that Cirrus’s parachute system was independently developed.
Mr. Fleming also tried to amend his patent to include a selection feature, where the aircraft could select whether to engage the autopilot system or not based on airspeed after the pull of an emergency handle, but the Federal Circuit agreed with the PTAB that the patent did not contemplate such a selection, and denied the amendment as lacking support in the original specification.