In collaboration with the European Space Agency and the European Space Policy Institute, the European Patent Office (EPO) has compiled a new Patent Insight Report in space technologies. The report is focused on space-born remote sensing and green applications, and contains insights into technology trends and behaviour of actors in the sector.

Satellites that employ remote sensing technologies provide the opportunity to examine long-term trends in the environment as well as monitor industrial and civilian activities. Hundreds of satellites dedicated to remote sensing have been launched and placed into orbit, and multiple national and international programmes have been seeing significant success (including Corpernicus, Meteosat, and EarthExplorer).

As technology matures and the economy becomes increasingly digitised, investment and development opportunities are being made available to an ever-growing cohort of inventors and companies. Satellite-originating data is more freely available than ever before, and scientists are using the knowledge to obtain valuable insights into our lives on earth. Green technologies employing satellite data are also growing in importance as the scale of the challenge posed by climate change becomes more apparent.

While not every technology and innovation will find its way into a patent application, examining trends in patent filings can be used to infer overall patterns in the field. The EPO has collected data from patent databases to investigate thousands of patent applications, with particular consideration of green-focused technologies.

The published report reveals some interesting findings, including:

  • Green applications of space-based sensing technologies show remarkable and consistent growth, increasing by 1800% between 2001 and 2020 (for comparison, total patent applications in all technology fields increased by 400% in the same period).
  • Some areas of green technology show higher levels of patent activity than others – in particular, sensing technologies toward crop productivity, land use, rivers/coastal zones, water vapour/clouds and extreme events show increased activity.
  • The largest contributor to patent filings (close to 70%) comes from software inventions directed toward signal-processing. These applications are directed, for example, toward data analysis and information extraction using satellite data.
  • The largest number of filings originated in China (although the report concludes that additional domestic factors may have impacted this number).

The consistent rise in patent filings implies a welcome rise in investment into R&D in the sector. This is perhaps a reflection of the increasing interest in the space sector as a whole, from SMEs, start-ups and well-established actors.

The large number of software applications is also of particular note for those operating in this field. While ease of data acquisition and availability of commercialisation opportunities mean a low barrier for entry into the market, these same factors may be driving the increase in activity in the sector and a corresponding rise in the number of patent applications.

Given this finding, it would be wise for those seeking to enter the market (or are already present in the market) to consider their options in view of the IP landscape – both in consideration of existing patent applications of competitors, and also in view of filing their own patent applications.

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