Drones—will tech's perpetual next big thing ever take off?

Drone cover image

Year after year we're told that drones are the next big thing. This year’s promises include drones getting smaller, batteries lasting longer, drone taxis, humanitarian aid and spectacular lightshows. But when restrictions and legislation against users are getting tighter, R&D teams needs to consider the implications and realistic applications.

I've been looking at the core trends disclosed within aviation patent documents and can see that drones—also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—and their purported uses are on the rise. By following signals disclosed inside intellectual property data I'm hoping I might be able to anticipate their future trajectory—or discover what is keeping the drones grounded.

Now, I need to start by letting you in on a secret. When I began this report I was going to look at aviation in general. But then I saw this word wheel for the industry at large and couldn't help but notice how many mentions of unmanned aerial vehicles there were.

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Aviation word wheel shows drone patents

Aviation technology word wheel (source: PatSnap platform)

Patent families

A patent family is "the same invention disclosed by a common inventor(s) and patented in more than one country" 

The below graph makes it clear that the UAV patenting rate is increasing at a phenomenal pace—so industry leaders must have something up their sleeve. When I started research (about 2 weeks ago) there were less than 6,000 simple patent families naming drones. Today, that number is 6,190 and rising.

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Drone patenting trends and grant rates

Drone patent application and grant rates (source: PatSnap platform)

Based on estimated market valuations, the average simple patent family is worth over $37,500. Obviously that doesn't mean every drone patent will be worth that much. They range from unvalued (for around half of those patents) to a fairly beefy $7 million—resulting in a total technology value of nearly $231 million.

Who’s leading drone development?

Well, China is the global leader of patenting at the moment, and unsurprisingly ranks very highly in this sector. Patents filed in China account for 41% of the industry overall.

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Geographic patenting trends show China dominating drone patent applications

China is dominating drone patent applications (source: PatSnap platform)

But the USA is beginning to catch up—although it always worth noting that we expect to see a lot more patents published for 2016 and 2017 over the next 24 months. 

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Geographic drone patenting by year

Geographical patent filing by year (source: PatSnap platform)

And this all makes a bit more sense when we look at the key companies involved in this tech. Chinese drone specialist, Shenzhen Dajiang Innovation Technology (DJI), is the most prolific patenting company by a big margin. Following up in second place is Amazon.

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Who is developing drone technology?

DJI hold the most drone patents (source: PatSnap platform)

Some of the products DJI has already brought to market include advanced gimbals for professional film makers and first-person view (FPV) goggles for drone racers. It's also developed thermal imaging systems and identified the potential for assisting various industries in site surveying and more. But one of DJI’s most recent patents relates to a slightly more domestic affair—a drone that could take your dog for a walk.

Pet walking patent from DJI - US9861075

DJI’s autonomous pet walking drone US9861075. But will it scoop poop too?

Can drone R&D deliver results?

Drones have been pitched to become modern life’s carrier pigeon—albeit a little more hygienic.

In 2013, Amazon announced the plan to deliver packages utilising fully autonomous Octocopter drones. In December 2016 Prime Air made it’s first, very public, customer delivery in Cambridge, England. Since then Amazon has remained fairly quiet. Incidentally, the delivery happened on a mild and sunny day (yes, they do occassionally occur in the UK) and it took 13 minutes from order to delivery. Handily, the customer lived virtually next door to Amazon's depot, had a massive garden for the drone to land, and the requested items weighed less than a couple of kilos.

And therein lie some of the current limitations of this pioneering drone delivery technology. Change any one of the above parameters and the whole project becomes a little more unviable. Change two and we might as well call the whole thing off.

For drone delivery to realistically take off, batteries are a key consideration, which will need a whole other post to discuss. But along with batteries, the following issues need to be addressed. Fortunately, some companies are taking steps in the right direction.

Weatherproofing

Surprisingly, only a few companies are actually patenting solutions to inclement weather. One—AeroVironment, a Californian aviation tech company—has developed a waterproof drone with hermetically sealed modularised compartments and fluid drain ports.

Depot locations

One of Amazon’s latest patent publications relates to landing a drone on a moving transportation vehicle (WO2016140988A1). Could this effectively create a mobile goods depot?

Weight limitations

And Boeing, has recently developed an autonomous prototype designed for carrying larger cargos—up to 500lb.

Taxi, please!

German firm Volocopter doesn't want to deliver books—it's looking at autonomously taxiing humans through the air. In scenes reminiscent of Blade Runner, the Volocopter has already had an unmanned test flight in Dubai—and is ambitiously planning on dominating UAE skies within five years.

War and peace—humanitarian solutions

Unmanned aerial vehicles don't just have commercial potential. They could also be used for sending important medical supplies, such as blood, organs and medication between hospitals, or to isolated locations, such as warzones.

Speaking of warzones—US unmanned combat aerial vehicles were reported, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, to have been responsible for over 2,400 deaths between 2009 and 2014. Systems are being developed to improve the artificial intelligence for autonomous combat capabilities based upon top human pilot skills and tactics (US9840328).

MQ-9 Reaper Drone

Swarms of drones

Micro-drones are expected to make an impact en masse in the near future. Intel showed intent for a slice of the action, as demonstrated at CES 2018 in Las Vegas, with 250 Shooting Star drones dancing in formation over the Bellagio.

Does Intel plan on replacing the traditional fireworks show?

Aside from lightshows, teams of drones could be used in lifesaving search and rescue operations. Swarms, harnessing the power of infra-red or thermal imaging, could be deployed to create rapid, localised mapping of damaged buildings to direct emergency services to the most vital locales.

Bad drones, bad users and AI morality

But, fundamentally, there have been some questions raised regarding the misuse of unmanned aerial vehicles and the security threats they pose. Aside from their potential to peep through windows or deliver contraband to prisons, drones are also putting lives at risk. In 2016, there were 48 drone and commercial aircraft near misses or collisions reported—nearly one each week—in the UK.

Inventors and authorities are taking some innovative steps towards protecting the world at large from UAV misuse. In the Netherlands, the police has trained eagles to take down offending drones.

Fortem has chosen the tech route by creating the Dronehunter—the anti-drone drone—which captures and immobilises mischievous trespassers in a net.

While other inventors and bodies, such as the IEEE, are developing or petitioning for ethical standards to be hardwired into the coding for artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous drones.

What’s next?

It’s taken a while for drones' practical uses to catch up with the novelty of the concept. Some of the uses that are likely to be explored further include embedded services and mesh networking. The next steps rely upon essential improvements in reliability during inclement weather, extended battery cell capacity and synchronistic capabilities for multiple drones. Plus as humans, we need to be able to trust that the technology will be a force for good—and not compromise our own moral values.


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This report was designed and created using Insights by PatSnap with the following Boolean search parameters:

(IPC: B64C) AND (TAC: ("drone" OR "UAV" OR "Unmanned aerial vehicle" OR "Unmanned vehicle" OR "unmanned air vehicle"))

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