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Electrification: IP opportunities and risks for aerospace

June 2024

As patent attorneys, the recent rate of innovation and cross-sector interest in battery and allied technologies has been clearly noticeable. There has been a significant uptick in new patent filing activity relating to electrification technologies. This will naturally create opportunities and risks for all involved, but the aerospace sector will experience these opportunities and risks more profoundly than most.

A large quantity of intellectual property (IP) is currently being generated and protected in the fields of batteries and charging, as well as related control, monitoring, safety, and integration systems. The latest data from the European Patent Office indicates that in 2022, “Electrical machinery, apparatus and energy”, (including clean energy inventions and battery technology) was the fourth largest and fastest growing sector for patent filings (+18.2%).

Also noteworthy is the cross-sector nature of companies currently innovating in this area. We have seen innovators actively working on electrification technology and seeking IP protection for their developments in areas including passenger cars, mining haul trucks, tools, consumer electronics, light and narrowbody aircraft, drones, and skyports. In our experience, the size of an entity seems to be of little issue, with both SMEs and larger enterprises being active in this area.

Aerospace is relatively late to this party (especially when compared to the automotive sector). This is unsurprising given the longer product lifecycles and the more limited applicability of the technology. Nonetheless, many of the innovations being made, both in and beyond the aerospace sector, address problems applicable in multiple sectors. Weight, energy density, charge rate, cycle life, terminal connection, cell packaging, temperature management, thermal runaway, and manufacturing cost (to name but a few) are largely generic challenges.

In an IP interest and protection-rich environment, aerospace companies will therefore need to be vigilant for opportunities and threats as they advance their electrification technology and bring it to market.

With regard to threats, aerospace companies will need to be proactive in manging the risk from IP rights of third parties. This can be achieved through a sound IP strategy, including the use of periodic and targeted freedom-to-operate checks (see https://www.hgf.com/news/concerned-about-competitor-patents-what-to-do-and-what-to-avoid/). Without this, there would appear to be significant risk of inadvertently infringing third-party patent rights. This can lead to sanctions including injunctions and damages, even before factors such as legal costs and reputational damage are considered.

In terms of opportunities, it’s very likely that the R&D of aerospace companies will lead to innovations that are coveted by the companies of other significant sectors (e.g. the automotive sector). To benefit from this, it will be critical to properly protect these innovations using carefully drafted patent applications that account for potential cross-sector applicability and to prosecute those patent applications strategically.

More generally, the combination of a high rate of innovation and rich cross-sector involvement should create unusually good and frequent opportunities for mutually beneficial collaboration, be it through technology development partnerships or licencing/cross-licencing patent protected technology.

If you have any questions or are looking for further advice regarding innovation in the aerospace industry, please contact John Hawtree at [email protected] or Jennifer Unsworth at [email protected].

This article was prepared by Patent Directors John Hawtree and Jennifer Unsworth.

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