Boeing patent envisions a kind of artillery that could help fight wildfires; Xbox aficionados’ own onesie; Amazon’s new antitrust chief; Costco goes back to Italian olive oil.

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Putting a new twist on the notion of fighting fire with fire, Boeing has patented a plan for packing howitzer shells with retardant chemicals and lobbing them into the path of a forest fire.

With wildfires raging across the West again this summer, an added tactic might be welcome. Talk about a hot market.

But there’s no sign Boeing has even tested its thinking on this idea — no working prototypes are required to win a patent.

The patent, on which a half-dozen Puget Sound-area Boeing employees are credited as the inventors, claims the approach could be more efficient and flexible than dropping the retardant from airplanes or helicopters.

It notes that aircraft can’t fly at night or during bad weather, and “deliver fire-retarding material at a low rate which often makes them inadequate to control forest fires.”

With artillery, the patent asserts, retardant could be delivered in a variety of patterns — “a concentration barrage, a creeping barrage, a rolling barrage, or a block barrage” — without regard to light or weather conditions and with reduced risk to firefighters.

Boeing envisions nonexplosive shells opening at preset heights to rain down retardant at 1 to 6 gallons per 100 square feet, according to the patent. With the right gun, delivery could be accurate to within 15 feet over 15 miles, it says.

But not everyone is fired up about the idea.

Tim Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, an advocacy group for progressive approaches to wildfire management, questioned whether artillery could provide the unbroken coverage of retardant necessary to keep a fire from spreading.

“It sounds ridiculous because it’s a matter of scale — how many rounds do they have to pound out to lay out a good retardant line?” he asked.

Aircraft “are often grounded by extreme conditions, heavy smoke,” Ingalsbee acknowledged, but when able to fly they can deliver retardants “in remote areas, steep canyons.” Maneuvering artillery pieces to get a shot at such areas would not be easy, either, he speculated.

Ingalsbee also said he’s not keen about adapting another weapon of war to the wildfire problem. People should regard wildfires as a natural phenomenon to be managed, rather than an enemy to be fought and defeated.

A federal wildfire official was more neutral about Boeing’s idea.

“Wildland fire agencies are always interested in exploring new technologies that have the potential to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of wildland fire management and wildfire suppression,” said Randy Eardley, chief of external affairs with the Bureau of Land Management’s National Fire and Aviation program. “However, there are rigorous processes in place to test new technologies to determine whether it is feasible and appropriate to incorporate them or not. Until a product is fully tested, we cannot speculate on their potential applicability or future uses.”

Boeing spokesman Bret Jensen said in an email that the company gets hundreds of patents annually and “the awarding of a patent does not necessarily mean that Boeing will be developing that concept or design in the near future.”

 

Boeing’s patent application does offer some additional details, though they seem more “concept” than “design.”

It says the shells should be made of material that degrades in anywhere from one month to 10 years — “but at no time before, during or after its degradation shall it be toxic to the environment.”

Also, the application suggests some likely delivery systems: the M777 medium field howitzer or M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer built by BAE Systems; the Haubits Fh77 howitzer by Bofors; or a variant of the 2A65 howitzer developed in the former Soviet Union.

Boeing included spreadsheets demonstrating the superiority of its artillery system over aircraft delivery of retardant — though it labeled the figures as “simulation results.”

A fire that begins at 28 acres could be contained with a helicopter delivering 6,469 gallons of retardant over 7.6 hours, and during that time the fire would have spread to 100 acres, Boeing says, citing a government guide to forest-fire response.

By contrast, bombarding the fire with 3-gallon artillery shells, it could be contained in 2.6 hours using just 4,990 gallons of retardant and containing the damage to just 39 acres, Boeing asserts.

— Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

Amazon hires antitrust lobbyist

Amazon.com has hired veteran D.C. lobbyist Seth Bloom to be its knight in shining armor in matters antitrust, according to a report by Politico.

The move comes as Amazon ramps up its political spending, as well as raising its profile as a corporate citizen. The company declined to comment about the hire.

As for the need of an antitrust adviser, it’s a testament to Amazon’s now massive size.

The retailer is not only one of the biggest companies by market value in the S&P 500, but also it has become the biggest player in the growing field of e-commerce and in cloud computing.

Its Marketplace platform, where third-party merchants perform transactions and which competes against eBay, Etsy and other sites, has also become a force of its own.

Amazon has been the subject of antitrust investigations in Europe and, according to news agency Reuters, in Japan. In the U.S., Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has accused Amazon and other big U.S. tech companies of trying to lock competitors out. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has no love for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has said that the company has “a huge antitrust problem”

Bloom, the founder of Bloom Strategic Counsel, is a former general counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee, and was once an antitrust trial attorney at the U.S. Justice Department.

His firm has advised companies in large mergers, including MillerCoors, Aetna and Pfizer. He has also helped Microsoft on competition issues, according to his LinkedIn profile.

— Ángel González: agonzalez@seattletimes.com

Italian olive oil returns to Costco

After little more than a year of using olive oil from Greece for its Kirkland Signature extra virgin olive oil, warehouse giant Costco has apparently switched back to Italy as the source for its green-gold elixir.

Costco turned to extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) from Greece for its private-label 2-liter bottles last year after the disastrous 2014-2015 harvest — plagued by bad weather, pests and wasting diseases — that saw Italy’s production plummet and prices soar.

But after a better 2015-2016 worldwide harvest, and with Italian EVOO production bouncing back and prices going down, Costco reportedly made the switch back to Italian, according to Olive Oil Times.

“It was what members wanted. They’re used to what they’re used to and there’s a perception that Italian EVOO is top-of-the-line. The Greek oil did OK — I myself preferred it in a blind tasting — but it was not quite as strong a seller,” Olive Oil Times quotes Chad Sokol, commodity and dry grocery buyer for Costco’s Northern California and Nevada stores, as saying. “And pulling our buy out of Italy was significant. Their pricing came down as a reaction, and that was our hope as well.”

Costco did not respond to a request for comment on the switch back to Italian EVOO for its private label bottle.

It’s debatable whether the Italian olive-oil price drop was in reaction to Costco’s earlier pullout or due to a better harvest.

The 2015-2016 worldwide harvest is far better than the dismal 2014-2015 one, and production in Italy is up 112 percent, according to Olive Oil Times.

Producer prices for Italian EVOO were down 35 percent from the same period a year ago, according to a June newsletter from the International Olive Council.

But David Neuman, CEO of the North American unit of Greek olive-oil company Gaea, still sees opportunity for Greek EVOO.

Neuman’s company, whose oil is still carried by Costco, has predicted the supply of Italy’s EVOO will drop drastically in the upcoming 2016-2017 harvest. Factoring in everything from the flowering of the trees to the weather, it forecasts that Italy’s production will be down 40 percent, while Greece’s will be down 35 percent.

Since Greece, the world’s third-largest producer of olive oil after Spain and Italy, uses less EVOO domestically than Italy does, it will have more to sell, Neuman believes.

Plus, Italy has been plagued by reports of less expensive oils labeled as EVOO. (Costco, in its recent newsletter, says it has “worked diligently to ensure its Kirkland Signature EVOO is authentic and traceable.”)

If the upcoming harvest is as bad as it was two seasons ago, asked Neuman, “will Costco go back to Greece or somewhere else?”

— Janet I. Tu: jtu@seattletimes.com

Xbox Onesies for real fans

Microsoft is trying its hand at fashion, in the form of the Xbox Onesie.

Catering to couch potatoes and fans who really wanted a pocket big enough to hold a game controller, the Redmond company’s Australian marketers last week introduced a full-body, zip-up onesie emblazoned with the Xbox logo.

The suits, which come in white and black, have enlarged pockets to fit Xbox controllers and TV remotes, an arm pouch for mobile phones, and legs and sleeves that roll up “to cater for all temperatures and seasons.”

The gimmicky promo is tied to this month’s release of the Xbox One S, a slimmed-down version of the video-game console that Microsoft unveiled at the E3 video gaming-expo and released commercially this month. The onesies match the color scheme of the new device.

While Microsoft isn’t likely to bring the “limited edition” suits to the mass market, it’s giving away at least five of them in a drawing.

— Matt Day: mday@seattletimes.com

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Bret Jensen’s name.