The Great Plane Robbery

Or So Says Chuck DeCaro, Fingering the Navy

This is a story about a TV newsman turned inventor, the U.S. Navy, and two very similar airplanes -- and a controversy about which one came first that could turn nasty faster than you can say "intellectual property."

"I'm so mad I could spit," says the inventor, Chuck DeCaro.

The owner and president of Aerobureau Corp. is mad because be believes U.S. Navy officials pirated his proprietary design for a new type of battlefield surveillance aircraft. The Navy spy plane, dubbed P-3 TV, is being used to monitor bloody battles in war-torn Bosnia.

To win his one-man campaign against the Navy, DeCaro has turned to Congress, enlisting the aid of liberal Virginia Democrat Rep. Leslie Byrne, as well as conservative Californian Republican Rep. Bob Dornan, known as "B-1 Bob" for his fervent support of the B-1B nuclear-armed bomber.

In an April 29 interview, Byrne said she is considering asking the Pentagon's Inspector General, as well as the General Accounting Office and the Office of Technology Assessment, to study DeCaro's claim. "This is a real David and Goliath kind of problem. The Navy has given Mr. DeCaro short-shrift [because] his case is well made," she said.

DeCaro, who lives in Great Falls, Va., designed and tested his four-engine Lockheed L-188C Electra aircraft with its battery of long-range cameras, a synthetic aperture radar, a miniature television studio, facilities to operate camera-carrying drone aircraft and high-capacity satellite communications links.

His intention is to allow television news companies rapid worldwide access to newsworthy trouble spots. For civilian television watchers and battlefield commanders, DeCaro promised to provide the same play-by-play view of a battle or crisis now enjoyed by the television audiences of Super Bowl games.

The inspiration for the idea came from DeCaro's colorful career as a pilot and television journalist, including a stint as a special projects reporter for the Atlanta-based Cable News Network.

After testing the aircraft in 1990 and briefing a wide variety of Navy officials on the idea, he proposed to rent the aircraft to the Navy so they could test its value.

When Navy officials declined the proposal, DeCaro was disappointed, but began working through Congress and friendly officials in the Pentagon, seeking support for a one-year, $5 million test.

Disappointment turned to anger a few months later when DeCaro discovered that Navy officials quietly modified one of their aircraft with a similar television system for intelligence-gathering missions over Bosnia.

The Navy's aircraft is being used in the NATO and United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, chiefly as a field experiment, according to an April 29 Navy statement. The Navy's Lockheed-built P-3 Orion is an improved version of the L-188C Electra, and was modified in February by Navy officials at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster, Pa., according to the statement. Dubbed P-3 TV, the P-3 carries a jury-rigged television video-link system based on the system used in the Navy's Pioneer unmanned aircraft built by AAI Corp. of Hunt Valley, Md.

In an April 15 letter sent to Byrne, Nora Slatkin, the Navy's chief procurement official, rejected DeCaro's claims. "The idea for this system [the P-3 TV] originated in-house and was not taken from Aerobureau's concept.... although similar in capability, it is not a clone of the Aerobureau system," Slatkin wrote.

In its upgrade, Navy officials boosted the communications capacity of a P-3 that had been secretly modified with a massive 125-inch focal length camera able to spot targets as small as one-square-foot in size at ranges of more than 60 miles. Previously, the aircraft, code-named Reef Point, had been only able to transmit freeze-frame photos or snapshots.

More than one video-capable Navy aircraft is operational over Bosnia, a Navy official involved in the program said May 2. To upgrade the communications link, the Navy used the Pioneer video-link, which is the same system used by DeCaro, in its aircraft because it is already used in the Navy-operated Pioneer drone aircraft, Slatkin said.

When DeCaro's charges were made, Navy officials "came down on us with both feet," said the Navy official. During an internal Navy investigation, "we had to show we were squeaky clean....[and] we proved we had started these [video] concepts independently of Chuck DeCaro," he said.

DeCaro vehemently argued against Slatkin's rebuttal, saying that the similarity of the technical systems, the numerous briefings he gave to the Navy officials who oversee the P-3 aircraft, plus the familiarity with DeCaro's proprietary ideas shown by the Navy officials who modified the P-3 provide proof enough of his charges. To buttress his case, DeCaro cited a study of the Aerobureau aircraft by Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center in El Segundo, Calif.

Although it rejected DeCaro's proposal, the study concluded that "the Aerobureau-1's strong point is the concept itself. The system cleverly integrates sensor systems with extensive civilian communications nets.... However, the bottom line is that the Navy can pursue these ideas on its own and evolve systems more ideally suited to its military needs."

DeCaro argues that the study unfairly rejected the aircraft for being unable to perform missions it was not designed for, adding that Aerospace officials working on the report did not discuss it with him before making their final recommendations. Aerospace Corp. spokeswoman Mabel Oshiro declined to comment on the report. DeCaro said he has not yet sued the Navy, hoping first for an amicable settlement.

To win his claim, DeCaro will have to prove that his proposals were either patented or were kept sufficiently confidential that they could be protected by laws governing "technical data rights," according to Lawrence Gotts, an intellectual property rights lawyer working for the Washington, D.C.-based firm Kirkland & Ellis.

Because his proposals use existing technology in a new way, they were not patented, said DeCaro. However, the idea was briefed to Navy officials as proprietary data, he said, in hopes of firmly protecting his technical data rights.

DeCaro's case is further complicated by the widely growing interest within the Pentagon in live-video coverage of the battlefield. For example, the Pentagon's Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office is planning to field an array of high-flying, 24-hour endurance robot aircraft capable of providing continuous television coverage of a battlefield.

By relying on technical data rights, DeCaro does not have much margin for error, according to Bill Wells, an intellectual property rights lawyer at the Washington-based law firm of Kenyon & Kenyon. Even if DeCaro described his idea only a few times without carefully making clear that it is proprietary data not for dissemination, he may have seriously undermined his case, Wells said.

Also, any failure to document each briefing may open him up to attacks on the credibility of his memory and claims, he said. In recent years, several individuals and companies have won large-scale intellectual property rights lawsuits. For example, the inventors of automobile windshield wipers and supermarket bar-code scanners have won large awards from commercial businesses, while companies including Hughes Aircraft Corp. and ITT Corp. have won technology patent cases against the government, said Wells.

Other companies have had less success. Kimba Vasquez, president of American Business Computer, Ann Arbor, Mich., said he cannot afford to pursue a lawsuit charging officials at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif., with pirating his communications software. However, he has managed to stop the laboratory from widely using his technology, he said.

The success rate of such intellectual property rights claims is impossible to determine, Wells said, because losing cases may never make it into courts, he said.

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