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Tennessee physicist sentenced to 4 years for sharing drone plans with foreign students

John Reece Roth, 71, a prominent plasma physicist was sentenced to four years in prison for 18 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud and violations of the Arms Export Control Act, after he allowed a Chinese graduate student to see sensitive information on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones.

“The illegal export of restricted military data represents a serious threat to national security,” David Kris of the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a statement, “We know that foreign governments are actively seeking this information for their own military development. Today’s sentence should serve as a warning to anyone who knowingly discloses restricted military data in violation of our laws.”

Roth, a retired professor at the University of Tennessee, helped found the university spin-off, Atmospheric Glow Technologies in 2000. The company won $10 million dollars in government grants to develop a radio-frequency technology to create ionized gas, or plasma, for use in a wide variety of applications, including sterilizing medical devices.

In 2004, the company received a U.S. Air Force contract to develop a plasma actuator that could help reduce drag on the wings of drones, such as the ones the military uses. Under the contract, for which Roth was reportedly paid $6,000, he was prohibited from sharing sensitive data with foreign nationals.

Despite warnings from his University’s Export Control Officer, in 2006, he took a laptop containing sensitive plans with him on a lecture tour in China. He also allowed graduate students Xin Dai of China and Sirous Nourgostar of Iran to work on the project.

Last year, Atmospheric Glow Technologies pleaded guilty to 10 counts of breaking export laws and and company physicist Daniel Sherman pleaded guilty to conspiracy for allegedly lying about Dai's employment.

During his trial, Roth testified that he was unaware that hiring the graduate students was a violation of his contract, otherwise he would not have participated since his plasma research also has non-military applications. "This whole thing has not helped me, it has not helped the university," he told Nature in 2006. "And it has probably not helped this country, either." 

Roth's attorney, Thomas Dundon, told Scientific American that he has filed a notice of appeal.  "We were hopeful that he would not be incarcerated at all," he says.

John Santarius, a plasma physicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who has known Roth for two decades says that he always found Roth to be patriotic and careful. “It is so out of character for him to do something like this on purpose,” he says, “My inclination is to believe he made an honest mistake.”

Image of Predator drone courtesy bryce_edwards via Flickr

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