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Repeated disruption at Gatwick, the UK's second-largest airport, due to "deliberate" drone incursions caused travel chaos at the end of 2018. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded or delayed, and people were left wondering – how could something like this happen? Drone-related innovation shows no sign of slowing. Inventors must now consider how to improve public perception of a technology with considerable applications for the future.

Analysing IP activity around unmanned aerial vehicles, we identified major patent holders and some of the emerging trends for drone technology.

Off to a flying start

In 2016/2017, the number of patents for drone-related technology hit a new high. Companies filed 5,301 patents in areas including aerial logistics, photography, mapping and agriculture. With major players looking to develop monopolies on drone technology, the emerging global market for business services using drones is potentially worth more than $127bn, according to a PwC study.

The world’s largest drone-related patent holder is Chinese technology company DJI. Drone patents now make up a fifth of the company’s total IP portfolio, with drone products in the consumer, professional and enterprise sectors.

Aviation needs

The Boeing Company holds the second largest number of drone-related patents. Its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) projects are used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. These include the Phantom Eye  - a liquid hydrogen-fuelled, high-altitude and long-endurance unmanned aircraft system– and the MQ-25, designed with a robust refuelling capability for Navy operations.

Boeing has also pioneered innovation in UAV safety. With more drones and UAVs in the air, there are concerns vehicles will collide. In 2016 Boeing was granted a patent for automatic overrides – an important step towards the safe commercial use of drones.

However, Boeing is not the only aviation company expanding aerial innovation to drone technology. Airbus, Israel Aerospace Industries and Wing Aviation also rank among the top 20 patent filing companies.

In the spotlight

E-commerce company Amazon has received significant media attention for its development of Prime Air – a futuristic drone delivery project. Prime Air was first announced in 2013 and has since overcome public uncertainty and logistical queries with proof of concept videos and a drone delivery trial which successfully deliver items to two shoppers via drone.

To get Prime Air off the grounded, Amazon filed for a number of drone-related patents – making it the third largest patent filer in the sector. One of Amazon’s most recent filings relates to the ‘airborne fulfilment centre’ – a warehouse doubling as a drone airport that allows them to overcome drones’ limited flight distance.

Future potential

Drone-technology has invigorated innovation in a number of industries. Agricultural companies have even sought patent protection for UAVs to distribute seeds, tend to crops and monitor livestock through solar powered and voice controlled drones.

However, there are significant hurdles to mainstream adoption. All companies must gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for drone technology intended for the air. With the recent airport disruptions caused by unsolicited drone activity, it is expected regulation will require improved geofencing technology to prevent drones from entering unauthorised aerospace. Public concern is also at an all-time high against drones following major flight delays, creating a significant uphill battle for mainstream adoption of drone technology.

IP law firms are already struggling with the volume of patents being filed across the globe – companies increasing their portfolios with drone patents will further flood the industry. With so many documents, deadlines and stakeholders, keeping on top of an IP portfolio is a high-stakes process where small mistakes have major implications.

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