Space patent study: Airbus and Boeing dominate, China is catching up quickly

When the first human went into orbit sixty years ago, space technologies were the exclusive domain of a few government organizations. Space technologies are now experiencing an unprecedented boom. Commercial revenues from satellite launches alone have increased by over 50 percent over the past decade. The influx of private capital, which totaled 5.7 billion US dollars in 2019, has also led to a massive increase in patent applications in this area: These have at least tripled in the period from 2007 to 2017.

This is one of the results of one Study of patent activities in the field of cosmonauticswhich the European Patent Office (EPA) and the European Institute for Space Policy (ESPI) have carried out and now published in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). A large part of the growth in registrations of relevant industrial property rights in Europe is therefore due to operators from Germany and France. Around 85 percent of the patents here are owned by private companies.

In the past decade, applications from China for more than 50 percent of all patent families rose like a rocket in 2018. The authors attribute this in part to the general changes in Chinese patent policy: These meanwhile offer great incentives for domestic actors to apply for patent protection at an unusually high rate in a global comparison. However, only about 5 percent of patent families originating in China are also protected in other legal systems. Nonetheless, the People’s Republic’s strong position in this sector has consequences for foreign players trying to enter the Chinese market.

The study organizers examine generally available data from worldwide databases for industrial property rights and have identified almost 12,000 patent families that basically meet their criteria. The overriding goal is to show how various public and private bodies are promoting innovations in cosmonautics areas such as propulsion, system control, on-board power supply, telepresence and robotics, as well as debris removal.

According to the results, the number of patent families in space travel has risen sharply in the past ten years alone, from around 300 to around 1200. The number of annual space launches has multiplied to around 500, which shows the expansion of the sector. The researchers see the increasing patent filing activity both in Europe and around the world as an indicator of a “maturing market”, as those involved increasingly tried to “protect their intellectual property”.

US institutions top the 30-year statistics from 1990 to 2020, followed by other established space travel nations. Of the global patent applications, 38 percent are in the USA, 19 percent in China and 10 percent in Japan. Germany ranks fourth with 9 percent, France with 8 percent fifth. Russia and South Korea follow with 5 percent each.

The main players globally since 1990 have consistently been Airbus, Boeing, Safran, Lockheed Martin and the US government. Since 2015, the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) has been pushing forward abruptly. This is the prime contractor for the Chinese space program.

Among the smaller players with fewer than 500 patent families, Maxar Technologies, Aerojet Rocketdyne and ESA dominate the field. The Shanghai Engineering Center for Microsatellites has also had a massive impact here since 2017. Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin has been putting a few sprinkles on the menu in at least five years since 2010. The well-known “New Space” actors SpaceX from Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic (Richard Branson) do not appear in this table or in the entire report.

European activities in cosmonautics are fairly centralized, with the largest players being based in Germany with 1270 and France with 1219 patent families. Great Britain has 283 patent families, Italy, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland each come in below 100. The authors rate Europe as an important market for foreign companies. This is supported by “remarkable patent filing activity” by US institutions, but also by Japanese, Korean, Russian and Canadian companies.

The authors deal with individual areas of technology separately. When it comes to propulsion, they describe the “dizzying increase of 200 protected inventions between 2015 and 2016” as particularly noticeable. They explain it with high registration activities, for example by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute and the Hanwha company and by Russia (Roskosmos and individual companies). Other major applicants in these years were for technologies such as turbo pumps, solid rocket propulsion systems and motors, 3D printing processes and electronic components, Aerojet, Boeing and Raytheon. Furthermore, the Airbus Group expanded its patent portfolio during this time.

In the spacecraft electrical power sector, researchers see a “steep increase in registrations, which is most noticeable in Europe”. The patent families are significantly larger here than in all other technological areas of analysis. Seven of the ten largest patent holders in this area come from the automotive industry, including Nissan, Toyota and Bosch. Airbus, Boeing and Thales complete the top 10.


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