James Lee Phillips
Apr 6, 2012

NASA's powerful systems modeling patent: Sold to the highest bidder

Bill Readdy, a former NASA shuttle astronaut, speaking at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in WashingtonThe "848" Patent is among seven software-oriented patents in a lot recently auctioned by NASA as part of the ICAP Ocean Tomo IP Auction. Another lot focused on mimicking apoptosis, or programmable cell death, in “autonomic computing” systems, and the third lot consisted of a single patent adapting “biological pulse technology“ for alarm and monitoring systems. Despite the innovative nature of all three lots, only the first drew bidders -- a clear sign that the business community is increasingly placing a premium on software patent ownership.

According to NASA's 15th ICAP Ocean Tomo IP Auction summary on their site, “Potential applications include software development, robotics, telecommunications, utilities, smart grids, wireless sensor networks, quantitative finance, enterprise software, and cyber security among many others.” However, NASA itself admits that these patents hold the promise of innovation beyond even that of the software industry, stating that, “More broadly these patents hold value in any field where a need exists to design highly complex, automated, and intelligent systems.”

At first glance, the "848" patent may tend to obscure its significance with a seemingly impenetrable technical description. “Pattern Matching in Procedure Development and Verification” is further explained as a procedure in which formal specifications are pattern-matched from scenarios, then analyzed and any flaws in formal specifications are corrected.

Exploring the description further reveals that the possibilities are both innovative and inspiring. There are two interesting sides of the "848" patent -- the method of ‘translation’ between formal and informal expressions, and the optimization of the system in question.

The translation is described specifically enough to immediately demonstrate a direct relationship with another of NASA’s auctioned patents, “Systems, methods and apparatus for pattern matching in procedure development and verification” (or simply, the “671" patent). In fact, the relationship is close enough to make any implementation of the "848" patent problematic without also asserting the "671" patent -- which is itself a continuation-in-part of “System and Method for deriving a Process-Based Specification," the "274" patent also auctioned at the 15th ICAP.

In essence, these related patents describe how natural language or diagrams (with specific mention of Unified Modeling Language) may be translated into code during the course of software development. Requirements-based programming, or RBP, is loosely defined as a process by which you state what needs to happen, and the software 'writes itself' to achieve the goals. More accurately, your informal requirements are translated into a formal model, which is then adapted into high-level source code.

The "848" patent takes a specific segment of this process, where the needed or resulting system is optimized through automatic testing of various permutations. In one sense, it’s an extremely sophisticated ‘bug-checker,' but occurring at the stage of formal modeling rather than examining the final code itself. This need not be a preliminary stage; one of the examples describes how existing systems may be ‘translated back’ into a formal model (‘reverse engineered’, in a way) in order for the analysis to take place.

One of the compelling attributes of this method is its ability to generate models of similar versions -- competing products, so to speak -- and to determine which of the products is most successful. One can easily see how valuable it would be not simply to eliminate unforeseen errors and difficulties, but to also reveal a number of efficient ways to achieve the desired results.

Interestingly, one can also see where this process could be used to develop your own competition -- and thereby establish preemptive ownership of multiple variations of a single product, regardless of whether they happen to be more, less or equally efficient means to reach the requirements.

While NASA primarily focuses on space technology, many of its advances are utilized for earthly purposesEven more impressively, this patent, “ ... may relate to the field of chemical or biological process design or mechanical system design, and, generally to any field where the behaviors exhibited by a process to be designed can be described by a set of scenarios expressed in natural language, or some appropriate graphical notation or textual notation.” In other words, the automatic optimization and development of variations could be applied to every industry from pharmaceuticals to genetics, from large-scale installation design to miniature robotics.

The NASA auction was not an outright sale; the ‘buyers’ were competing for an exclusive license on patents that remain owned by NASA. Because of the anonymous nature of the auction, it is unknown whether the "274", "671" and "848" patents did in fact go to separate bidders. As ownership still resides with NASA, any potential conflicts should be minimized for the most part.