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Cosmonautics: The EPO Reports Lift Off in Patent Filings

By Jenny Soderman
Cosmonautics: The EPO Reports Lift Off in Patent Filings

Over the past couple of years, news about space has been dominated by the advances in space travel made by private companies. Space-X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, to name a few, have gone from making small steps to taking giant leaps in only a few years.

In my previous Insight article, I looked at how a ready access to space provides new opportunities for extra-terrestrial research, and discussed some of the IP questions facing these pioneers as space-based-research starts to take off. For the moment, however, the current technological advances and trends in space exploration are already providing a tangible IP metric: patent applications.

The European Patent Office, in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) Technology Transfer and Patent Office and the European Space Policy Institute, has recently produced a Patent Insight Report which uses patent filing statistics to analyse the characteristics of innovation in space and, in particular, cosmonautics.

The report looks at nearly 12,000 patent families filed in the last thirty years which fall into eight fields of cosmonautic technology. These technology fields include propulsion; automation, telepresence and robotics (for example, exploration vehicles); thermal technologies; and space debris monitoring.

Unsurprisingly, the number of patent families filed per year in the cosmonautic space has grown rapidly in the last ten years. In all eight technological areas, the number of worldwide patent filings quadrupled from 2006 to 2016. By comparison, the overall increase in worldwide filings over the same time period was only about 50%.

This surge in filings has been pushed upwards by innovations in space propulsion. Much of the research in this field focuses on improving traditional chemical and electrical propulsion systems, but the lofty ambition of many space agencies to achieve human colonisation on other planets has raised the bar. Many are now investing in hot new systems such as electro-thermal and nuclear-thermal propulsion.

A small but burgeoning field for patent filings is focussed on space debris, and in particular technologies related to the detection and surveillance of such debris. The uncontrolled re-entry of the Chinese Long-March 5b rocket over the Indian Ocean in May 2021 sparked worldwide interest and alarm, and the increase in patent filings in this field reflects a growing awareness of the dangers associated with a large quantity of non-functional man-made objects circulating in space. Space debris removal technology is also a particularly active area, as the availability of funding for environmental "clean-up" projects begins to extend beyond just land and sea. For example, the UK Space Agency is currently offering companies a share of £800,000 to develop ideas for space debris removal missions.

Besides technology areas, one of the key parts of the EPO's report analyses the most active applicants and jurisdictions for cosmonautic patent applications.

Space-related patent filings have been dominated over the last thirty years by filings from the United States. This is not really surprising, given the USA's enormous annual public space budget as well as the significant number of privately owned contributors based in the US - private investors contributed a staggering 5.7 billion USD to the space sector in 2019.

However, the USA's lead may be starting to burn up. In the last five years, filings by Chinese-originating applicants have soared and annual numbers have now overtaken those of the USA. In fact, China accounted for more than 50% of all worldwide cosmonautic patent filings in 2018 - but interestingly, only 5% of Chinese-originating patent families are also protected in other jurisdictions. It is thought that this phenomenon arises due to government mandated targets for domestic patent filings, and the significant subsidies offered by local authorities for the filing of domestic applications to help them reach those targets. In contrast, while the number of US and European-originating cosmonautic patent families is lower, they tend to cover multiple jurisdictions.

The key long-term players in the worldwide cosmonautics patent space will be familiar names to many - looking at the past thirty years as a whole, Airbus Group, Boeing, Safran and Lockheed Martin take up four of the top five spots. The remaining place in the top five is occupied by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which is the main contractor for the Chinese space programme. Incredibly, CASC has made it to second place in the list, despite only being on the patent scene for the last ten years or so. China's growing prowess in space exploration goes beyond the paper trail, as can be seen by their recent launches of a moon rover, a Mars rover and even a new space station.

Analysis of patent filings certainly provides an alternative perspective to the space race, but one which seems to accurately reflect the situation on the ground (or, indeed, above the atmosphere). With the emergence of a new generation of private space companies, it will be interesting to see how the patent landscape shifts in the coming years and if the more established players can hold onto their top spots.