T 2932/19 25-04-2023
TOOL MEMORY-BASED SOFTWARE UPGRADES FOR ROBOTIC SURGERY
I. This appeal was filed by the applicant ("appellant") against the decision of the Examining Division to refuse its patent application, inter alia on the ground that the subject-matter of independent claims 1 and 15 of the main request did not involve an inventive step over the document US 6,331,181 Bl (D1).
II. With its statement of grounds of appeal, the appellant resubmitted that main request, unchanged, and further filed auxiliary requests 1 to 4.
III. The Board provided its preliminary opinion in a communication under Article 15(1) RPBA 2020, objecting to some of the dependent claims of the main request.
IV. In response, with its submission of 13 March 2023 the appellant filed an amended main request in which the claims objected by the Board had been deleted and the remaining claims renumbered accordingly, and including an adapted description. This request constituted the appellant's new main request on appeal.
V. The appellant requested that the decision under appeal be set aside and that a patent be granted on the basis of that new main request, or, alternatively, on the basis of one of the auxiliary requests 1 to 4 filed with the statement of grounds of appeal.
VI. The application documents referred to in the following are those of the new main request. The independent claims, claims 1 and 13, are identical to independent claims 1 and 15 of the main request on which the decision under appeal was based, and read as follows:
"1. A robotic system (500) comprising:
a robotic arm (504) having a tool holder (508) and a signal interface;
a plurality of robotic tools (506), each tool receivable by the tool holder for manipulation by the robotic arm;
a processor (502) having a memory (516) and coupled to the robotic arm, the memory comprising robotic tool data associated with the plurality of tools and the processor directing movement of a robotic tool (512) received by the tool holder using associated tool data from the processor memory;
a first additional tool (514), the first additional tool having a memory with additional tool data or code (230), the first tool transmitting the additional tool data to the processor via the tool signal interface, characterised in that the processor is conditioned to store the additional tool data or code in the processor memory and is operable to direct movement of the robotic arm using the additional tool data or code after the first additional tool is removed from the tool holder."
"13. A robotic method comprising:
mounting a first robotic tool (514) to a robotic arm having a tool holder and a signal interface, the robotic arm coupled to and directed by a processor having a processor memory storing robotic tool data associated with a plurality of tools coupleable to the robotic arm;
transmitting update tool data or code from a memory of the first robotic tool via the signal interface to the processor memory;
and directing movement of the robotic arm by the processor using the update tool data or code after the first robotic tool is removed from the robotic arm."
VII. This decision also refers to the document US 5,400,267 (D2), which is also cited in the decision under appeal.
1. The invention
The patent application in suit relates to a robotic system as defined in independent claim 1, comprising a robotic arm having a tool holder and a plurality of robotic tools, each of which is receivable by the tool holder for manipulation by the robotic arm. For this purpose, the robotic system comprises a processor which has a memory containing robotic tool data associated with the plurality of tools and which directs movement of a robotic tool received by the tool holder using associated tool data from the processor memory.
The robotic system further comprises a first additional tool having a memory with additional tool data or code. This additional tool data or code can be transmitted to the processor. The processor is conditioned to store the additional tool data or code in the processor memory and is operable to direct the movement of the robotic arm using the additional tool data or code after the first additional tool has been removed from the tool holder.
In other words, the additional tool data or code transferred from the first additional tool persists in the processor memory and is used subsequently to drive the robotic arm, including to control other robotic tools. This allows the programming of the processor to be easily updated by shipping to the user of the robotic system new robotic tools containing updated tool data or code (see first paragraph of page 3 and penultimate paragraph of page 10 of the description).
The patent application also relates to a corresponding method for updating a robotic system as defined in independent claim 13.
2. Inventive step starting from D1
2.1 As set forth in the decision under appeal and acknowledged by the appellant (points 31-35 of the statement of grounds of appeal), D1 discloses a robotic system comprising the features of claim 1 which are identified in point 2.1 on page 4 of the decision. Therefore, the subject-matter of claim 1 differs from the system of D1 only in that the processor is operable to direct the movement of the robotic arm using the additional tool data or code after the first additional tool has been removed from the tool holder. The Board also shares this view.
2.2 Considering D1 as the closest prior art, the Examining Division formulated the objective problem to be solved starting from this document as how to reduce the configuration time and delay when a tool is replaced with a tool of the same tool type.
In the Examining Division's view, the person skilled in the art proceeding from D1 would have immediately realised that the tool-type data which is transmitted from a first tool coupled to the robotic arm is not specific to that particular tool but in fact is common to all other tools of the same tool type. Accordingly, an obvious measure to solve the above-mentioned technical problem would have been to store the tool-type data obtained from the first tool in the processor memory and to re-use this data to control the robotic arm after the first tool has been removed, for example to drive a second tool of the same type subsequently coupled to the robotic arm. The person skilled in the art would thus have arrived at the claimed solution without an inventive step.
The Board concurs with the appellant that this reasoning is not convincing.
2.3 It is true that D1 is directed to reducing the delay associated with a tool change (column 2, lines 30-31). However, as put forward by the appellant, there is no disclosure or teaching in D1 that data transmitted from a tool coupled to the robotic arm can be retained as persistent data in the processor memory and be used after that tool has been removed. Instead, D1 merely focuses on increasing the efficiency of "each" tool change (ibid.), i.e. separately and independently of the subsequent coupling of any other tool.
2.4 Instead of each tool transmitting its entire tool-type data to the processor each time it is coupled to the robotic arm (column 15, lines 44-60), D1 discloses that alternatively, tool-type data for various predefined tool types can be contained in a look-up table stored in the processor memory and that a tool coupled to the robotic arm can transmit only a tool-type identifier referencing the relevant portion of data in the look-up table (column 16, lines 5-11). This indeed minimises the amount of data transmitted from the tool to the system, thereby reducing the configuration time associated with that tool change.
D1 discloses that the look-up table is loaded in the processor memory and later updated by the system manufacturer (column 16, lines 8-14). There is no hint that the look-up table could be dynamically updated or expanded with additional tool data or code from a tool coupled to the robotic arm. On the contrary, D1 explains that coupling a tool of a type which is not referenced in the table may "result in inadequate robotic control" (column 16, lines 14-19). This implies that the system is not configured to update the look-up table with additional tool data or code that might be transmitted from that tool.
Even accepting the technical problem formulated by the Examining Division, the person skilled in the art starting from D1 and seeking to solve this problem would have had no reason, without the benefit of hindsight, to deviate from the solution based on a look-up table taught in D1. The Examining Division's reasoning fails to convince for this reason alone.
2.5 The other data described in D1 which can be transmitted from a tool coupled to the robotic arm are also not stored and used for controlling the movement of other tools subsequently mounted to the robotic arm. This was not disputed in the decision under appeal.
2.5.1 Tool-specific data (such as calibration data, tool life and use information, measured misalignment or offset; column 16, lines 20-41) is specific to a particular tool and is therefore of no use to any subsequently mounted tool. D1 also makes no mention of storing and using this data to control the movement of other tools.
2.5.2 Tool compatibility data indicates the compatibility of the mounted tool with the robotic system and is also of no use to any subsequently mounted tool.
In one embodiment, this tool compatibility data may be a unique identification data string stored in the tool memory which, once transmitted to the processor, is compared to a table, provided in the processor memory, containing the identification data strings of all known compatible tools. D1 does teach that this table could be updated each time additional tools are developed or obsolete tools are retired (column 17, lines 5-22).
However, there is no hint in D1 that this table could be dynamically updated using data transmitted from a tool coupled to the robotic arm. On the contrary, in order to avoid continuously updating such a compatible tool table, D1 instead teaches that tool compatibility could alternatively be checked using an encryption mechanism implemented in the processor to verify a verification data string stored in the tool memory and transmitted to the processor in addition to the tool identification data string (column 17, lines 22-45).
2.6 In fact, as put forward by the appellant, the distinguishing feature of claim 1 does not merely result in an acceleration of the tool change process. It amounts to using the first additional tool as a software distributor to effect a lasting configuration of the processor by transmitting persisting additional update tool data from the tool memory to the processor (see first paragraph of page 3 and penultimate paragraph of page 10 of the description). In this way, the processor can make use of the additional update data and take advantage of it whenever another robotic tool is subsequently coupled to the system. Hence, this feature also increases the accuracy, functionality and safety of the robotic system by ensuring that the system relies on the most recent update data available to control the robotic tools.
2.7 As the appellant argued, the implementation of this feature in the system of D1 would result in added complexity and thus increased delay when changing tools. Not only would this be contrary to the teaching of D1 that the delay associated with each tool change should be reduced, and therefore counter-intuitive to the person skilled in the art starting from D1. But it would also require substantial modifications of the system of D1, which would go beyond the kind of modifications that the person skilled in the art would consider without exercising an inventive step.
2.8 D2, the other prior art document cited in the decision under appeal, does not provide any hint or motivation toward this feature either, as further argued by the appellant. This document was cited in the decision only in respect of dependent claims (point 2.5 on page 6).
2.9 The Board therefore concurs with the appellant that the person skilled in the art starting from D1 would not have arrived at the subject-matter of claim 1 in an obvious manner. It follows that the subject-matter of claim 1 involves an inventive step over the prior art cited in the contested decision, contrary to the Examining Division's conclusion.
2.10 Independent claim 13 defines a corresponding method for updating the processor of a robotic arm based in essence on the same distinguishing feature as claim 1. The same considerations as discussed above for claim 1 therefore apply mutatis mutandis.
2.11 The remaining claims of the main request are dependent claims which depend on claims 1 or 13, respectively. Hence, their subject-matter also involves an inventive step.
3. Further points
3.1 Only inventive-step objections were substantiated in the decision under appeal to justify the refusal of the application. As discussed above, these inventive-step objections, as far as they apply to the present main request, are unfounded.
The Board does not have any further objections. In particular, the objections raised by the Board in its communication under Article 15(1) RPBA 2020 are not applicable to the main request since the claims objected to have been deleted.
3.2 Furthermore, the Board is satisfied that the description of the main request has been adapted to the claims, without introducing any subject-matter extending beyond the content of the application as filed.
For these reasons it is decided that:
1. The decision under appeal is set aside.
2. The case is remitted to the Examining Division with the order to grant a patent in the following version:
Â· Description: pages 1, 2, 2A, 3 to 24 filed with the submission of 13 March 2023
Â· Claims: claims 1 to 21 filed with the submission of 13 March 2023
Â· Drawings: sheet 1/8-8/8 as published.