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Patent lawsuit targets four iRobot rivals

Company says Roomba technology misused

The lawsuit alleges the Solac Ecogenic AA3400 cleaner (at right) illegally uses technology from Bedford-based iRobot’s Roomba vaccuum cleaner (left).

The lawsuit alleges the Solac Ecogenic AA3400 cleaner (at right) illegally uses technology from Bedford-based iRobot’s Roomba vaccuum cleaner (left).

The Bedford robot maker iRobot Corp. has sued four European companies in a German court, alleging they violated five patents used in its Roomba home-cleaning robot.

The lawsuit, filed in Dusseldorf, names as defendants Elektrogeräte Solac Vertrieb GmbH, Electrodomésticos Solac SA Celaya, Emparanza y Galdos Internacional SA, and Pardus GmbH. Three of the four companies are part of Cegasa Group, a conglomerate in Spain.

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The suit alleges that a robotic vacuum cleaner sold in Germany, the Solac Ecogenic AA3400, incorporates technology developed by iRobot for Roomba. IRobot says the Ecogenic infringes on five of iRobot’s German patents, covering a variety of the Roomba’s features, such as its ability to navigate through rooms and to clean a particular time of day.

In a statement, chief executive Colin Angle said that “iRobot has made significant investments to protect its intellectual property. The company has sold more than 9 million home robots worldwide and intends to protect its patent portfolio by the appropriate means available domestically and abroad.”

IRobot declined to comment further. The European companies could not be reached for comment.

IRobot sold about 1.6 million home robots in 2012, compared with 1.37 million the year before. The company is also a major provider of military robots to the Pentagon and to US allies.

The company has built thousands of PackBot robots, which have seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan. But due to cutbacks in US military spending, iRobot has become more dependent on sales of robots for civilian use.

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IRobot says it holds more than 200 US patents and another 195 abroad. More than 100 patents cover its home robots, including the Roomba.

Roomba is “seeing increasing competition from companies around the world,” said Philip Solis, research director at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. “Those are relatively simple to make, and there are a lot of copycat products out there.”

But Solis added that iRobot is developing more advanced products, like telepresence robots for use in hospitals, that will be harder to copy.

“They’ll definitely be taking their products up a notch,” he said, and so the outcome of the Roomba dispute may not be all that important. “They’re going to be doing better things anyway,” Solis said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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