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Ex-iRobot staffer denies he stole trade secrets

A former iRobot Corp. engineer said yesterday that his success in winning a $280 million government contract was based on years of robotics training and experience, not on the theft of iRobot trade secrets.

Jameel Ahed, founder of Robotic FX Inc. of Alsip, Ill., testified in US District Court in Boston, where iRobot is seeking an injunction to stop the production of Robotic FX's Negotiator robots.

IRobot is also fighting the US government, which has agreed to buy 3,000 Negotiators over the next year to disarm roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. US Attorney Michael Sullivan has filed papers arguing that the court has no authority to block the deal.

Ahed described four robots he built while an undergraduate at the University of Illinois. Ahed said that one of them employed the basic design used in Robotic FX's Negotiator robot, the machine that last month beat out iRobot's PackBot to win the US military contract. Ahed and his lawyers also demonstrated the Negotiator for US District Judge Nancy Gertner.

But Ahed gave no clear reason for destroying and discarding a variety of items within days of being sued by iRobot in August on claims of patent infringement and theft of trade secrets. In earlier testimony, Ahed acknowledged that he shredded about 100 CD-ROMs of data, wiped some files from three external hard drives, completely deleted the contents of a laptop computer, and tossed dozens of iRobot-related items into a dumpster. Gertner at one point said that Ahed's actions suggested "consciousness of guilt."

Ahed said his actions were due to exhaustion and stress. The suit was filed as he was working around the clock to prepare the Negotiator for tests at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. "During this time, I was really overwhelmed," Ahed said. "When I saw the lawsuit, I think I snapped."

Assistant US Attorney Anita Johnson told the court that while it has the authority to try the case, it cannot issue an injunction halting the production of Negotiator robots until the matter is settled. Johnson said that such an injunction can only be issued by the US Court of Federal Claims, which was created to handle cases filed against the government.

Lawyers for iRobot said their case is against Robotic FX, not the government. They added that if Robotic FX is barred from selling its robots, the government can shift the business to iRobot, whose PackBot meets the military's requirements.

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

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's Business section incorrectly described a US military contract to purchase robots from Robotic FX Inc. The contract is for a maximum of 3,000 robots to be delivered over five years.

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ROBOT WARS Read previous Globe coverage of the court battle between iRobot and Robotic FX at boston.com/business.

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