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IRobot wins injunction against competitor

A federal judge in Boston has issued an injunction against a Chicago-area robot maker accused of stealing trade secrets from iRobot Corp. of Burlington.

In August, iRobot sued Robotic FX Inc. of Alsip, Ill., a company founded by former iRobot engineer Jameel Ahed. IRobot claimed that Ahed had used iRobot trade secrets in the building of a robot called the Negotiator, which beat out iRobot's PackBot for a $280 million military contract.

After the suit was filed, detectives hired by iRobot witnessed Ahed trying to discard iRobot-related materials. Ahed also acknowledged shredding data CDs and erasing hard drives. Ahed said he was not destroying evidence, but US District Judge Nancy Gertner said his behavior "gives rise to a strong inference of consciousness of guilt" and "profoundly undermines Ahed's credibility as a witness."

During closed court hearings, iRobot discussed three areas in which it claimed the company's trade secrets had been stolen by Robotic FX. Gertner refused to issue an injunction covering two of the areas, saying iRobot had revealed some of the information in a patent filing, thus undermining its status as a trade secret. But Gertner said there was good evidence that Robotic FX may have misappropriated iRobot technology used to make the rubber tracks that propel its robots. "While Ahed claims that he developed the track independently, this court will not credit his testimony," Gertner wrote. Because the tracks are vital to the operation of the Negotiator robots, the injunction is a major barrier to continued manufacturing operations at Robotic FX - at least until a trial is held in April.

Officials at Robotic FX did not return calls seeking comment.

The injunction is the second major setback in the past 10 days for Robotic FX. Last week, the Army said it was freezing its contract with the company, pending an investigation of whether Robotic FX, with only about 10 employees, could supply up to 3,000 robots over the next five years.

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

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