Monrovia’s AeroVironment Inc. is best known as a maker of drone aircraft for the military, as exemplified by the much ballyhooed announcement last week that it had finished a prototype of the Nano Hummingbird, a tiny spy plane disguised to look like the bird.

But the company also is accusing a local competitor of stealing schematics to its electric-car battery testing systems, which underlines the importance of automotive products to its future.

Analysts say electric-car battery testers and chargers represent AeroVironment’s fastest growing business. A spokesman said the company is positioned for high growth in that market and is serious about guarding its technologies.

“Even though it’s a small part of the business today, we see significant growth potential in our test systems, industrial charging systems and EV charging systems,” said spokesman Steven Gitlin, “making it all the more important to protect that intellectual property for ourselves and for our shareholders.”

In a Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed last week, the company accuses Online Power Inc., a Commerce-based maker of backup power systems and other power-protection products, of using technology stolen by a former AeroVironment engineer, Aaron Tipnis. The case stems from a separate criminal investigation of Tipnis by the Department of Justice.

Tipnis pleaded guilty in December to providing former Online Power employee Donald Yang documentation about AeroVironment’s AV 900, a battery testing system used by electric vehicle developers, including General Motors and the Department of Defense, and its DC-DC converter, which narrows the voltage differences between a battery pack and fuel cell. Tipnis faced a maximum of 10 years in prison but was sentenced earlier this month to five years probation.

Tipnis’ attorney did not return a call for comment Thursday.

AeroVironment claims Online Power never returned the stolen technology and is continuing to use it. The civil action seeks to get its trade secrets back and to recover damages. According to the lawsuit, investigators found “large quantities” of stolen trade secrets in Online Power’s offices and “caught Online Power in the act of copying AeroVironment trade secrets into Online Power schematics.”

According to Tipnis’ plea agreement, some of the technology was used by Online Power for a project called DC Load Bank. That technology is used to test backup battery systems.

An Online Power executive, who declined to give his name because of the litigation, said the company never had any AeroVironment secrets. He said the exchange of documents was only between Tipnis and Yang, who left the company two years ago after the initial investigation, and that the company is not selling any products that compete with AeroVironment.


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