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Observing the Earth from Space – A Patent Overview

By Vivek Raghavan, Attorney

One of the areas of technology that is perhaps less commonly discussed in the context of climate change is that of remote sensing using satellites in space. This type of sensing is referred to as remote space-borne sensing and describes the use of sensors mounted onboard satellites and other spacecraft. These sensors can be used to provide images of the Earth for research and other purposes, including weather and defence. Of increasing interest is the use of space-borne sensing for green applications as we seek to further understand how to tackle a variety of environmental challenges. The use of satellites enables a larger region of the Earth to be covered and can provide a unique way of assessing trends on a macro scale. In recent years, increasing numbers of remote space-borne sensing programmes have been launched, including Copernicus in Europe and Landsat in the US, which provide open-access to data, enabling increased levels of innovation.

The European Patent Office (EPO) and the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), have recently produced a report on global patent filing trends in space-borne sensing for green applications. “Green applications” in this context is defined as those relating to remote sensing data in support of mitigating climate change, predicting weather, detecting pollution, protecting biodiversity or monitoring the environment. Technologies relating to these green applications can include both hardware aspects relating to the design and deployment of satellites and spacecraft, and software aspects relating to data acquisition and analysis.

The report notes that global patent filings for green applications of space-borne sensing increased by 1800% from 2001 to 2020, whilst global patent filings for all technologies only increased by 400% in the same period. This indicates that green applications of space-borne sensing are rapidly developing fields, with patent filing growth particularly accelerating in the last ten years. Current developments in this field are focused on advancements in instrument performance, miniaturisation of instruments and platforms, advancements in machine learning and AI for pattern and feature recognition, improvements in Lidar and microwave hardware, improvements in optical detectors and active optics, and developing signal processing techniques. The report finds that the high growth in patent filings from 2001 to 2020 is mainly attributed to an increase in the number of filings in the field of signal processing, which has clearly developed significantly over this period.

The report finds that the highest levels of patenting activity for green applications of space-borne sensing are found in technology areas relating to crop productivity, land use, river and coastal zones, water vapour and clouds, and extreme events. This may be because these fields present greater commercial opportunities than other larger scale environmental problems, such as rising sea levels. This is reinforced by the fact that fields such as sea level and salinity, deforestation, and soil erosion and permafrost thaw show relatively low levels of patenting activity, despite often dominating popular conversations about climate change. Traditional uses of space-borne sensing, such as weather monitoring and forecasting, display strong levels of patenting activity, possibly by virtue of being relatively mature technologies.

The report also looked at how patent filing activity for space-borne sensing varies between jurisdictions, by assessing the country of applicant for each patent application in the field. China has significantly invested in its space programme over the last 10-15 years and accordingly, patent filing activity in China has increased rapidly over this period. Patent filings originating from China accounted for 71% of the total number of patent filings for green applications of space-borne sensing in 2021. However, the report suggests that this patent filing increase may also be a result of public incentives for domestic patent filings in China. When looking at “international” patent families, which is used here to refer to patent families filed in two or more countries, those originating from the US have the largest share, accounting for 43% in 2021. Here, the share for Chinese-originating patent families only account for 11%. The countries traditionally associated with space technologies such as the UK, Japan, France, and Germany show relatively stable patent filing activity over the last 20 years. However, the growth of patent filing activity originating from Europe as a whole appears to be stagnating and only accounts for around 25% of the overall number of international patent filings.

When looking at all patent families, the top applicants are universities or research centres based in China, with the Chinese Academy of Sciences accounting for 1367 patent families alone. However, when this is narrowed to look at international patent filings, the top applicants are multi-national companies such as NEC Corporation, Airbus, and IBM.

The report also looks at the technology breakdown for the patent filing activity for space-borne sensing. The study finds that the majority of patent families are related to computer-implemented inventions, in particular signal processing software. In fact, signal processing technologies accounted for almost 70% of the total number of patent filings. However, the report acknowledges that this could be because the patent filing dataset was limited to green applications, which are more likely to be explicitly mentioned in patent applications relating to software rather than hardware, which could be used for multiple applications. The signal processing technologies related to information extraction methods, including analysis and modelling. This indicates the high demand which exists for more effective ways of using and understanding data from space-borne sensing. After signal processing, the next most-represented technology area in the dataset relates to radar-based technologies, including Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). SAR is used for active antennas and related subsystems in space technology, and an important challenge lies in reducing their cost and improving their thermal management.

Overall, the report shows that space-borne sensing in green applications is a rapidly developing field. The relatively higher levels of patent filing activity indicates that there is considerable and ongoing investment into this field by both research organisations, start-ups, and multinational corporations. Accordingly, those seeking to enter this field would be advised to consider the patent landscape relevant to their particular area of technology before proceeding with either commercialisation or patent protection.

This is for general information only and does not constitute legal advice. Should you require advice on this or any other topic then please contact or your usual HLK advisor.

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