In this series of articles, we will have a look at some of the greatest engineering ideas that have had an effect on our everyday lives. The list of 100 engineering ideas was compiled by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Our attorneys look at the IP milestones in the history of each of the inventions on the list and whether any IP protection was sought or obtained.

Jet engines

The early half of the 20th century was a tremendous time for developments in aviation, with the Wright brothers being the first to achieve controlled flight with their Wright Flyer aircraft. This plane, as well as most early aircrafts, was powered using piston engines with propellers. Although developments were made to increase the horsepower of piston engines, there were limitations to the level of power such engines could achieve.

These limitations were acknowledged by Frank Whittle, a Royal Air Force (RAF) officer who, during his studies as a cadet, wrote a thesis entitled ‘Future developments in aircraft design’. It was in this thesis that Whittle identified that the conventional piston engine and propeller combination would not be effective to achieve long range flight at higher speeds. Eventually, he had the idea of using a gas turbine that would produce a fast-flowing jet of air that would propel an aircraft.

On 16 April 1931, Whittle obtained patent GB 347,206 entitled ‘Improvements relating to the Propulsion of Aircraft and other Vehicles’ in which he outlined the working of a turbojet. He described the basic concept as follows:

“This invention relates to apparatus for propulsion of the type in which air is taken in, compressed, heated, and expelled with high velocity on re-expansion in order to provide a propulsive thrust”.

Whittle then went on to form Power Jet Ltd. with the support of the RAF. One of the early jet engines created by Power Jets Ltd. was Power Jet W1, which was also one of the first jet engines to be used on an aircraft, the Gloster E.28/39, which flew for the first time at RAF Cranwell in 1941. In the decades since the creation of the W1 engine, there have been further advancements made to jet engine technology.

One of the key technological hurdles to overcome in moving from the theoretical idea of a jet engine to making it a reality was to find a material for the turbine blades that could withstand the high temperatures reached in such engines. In his original 1930s patent, Whittle suggested using refractory material and in early jet aircrafts, heat-resistance steel was used. However, in modern jet engines, the temperatures at the exit of the combustor can reach almost 2,000°C. Therefore, it is now common to use nickel or titanium alloys as the main material for turbine blades. These alloys, especially nickel alloys, can retain their strength at high temperatures. However, since the temperature directly at the exit of the combustor is so high, further cooling is still needed.

Most metals are polycrystalline structures, with each crystal of a metal having a regular arrangement of atoms. The crystals are of varying sizes and orientations to one another and the interface between them is known as a grain boundary. These grain boundaries can act as a source of weakness in a metal and can accelerate the phenomenon known as creep, which is a time-dependent deformation experienced by a material under a constant mechanical load, especially at high temperatures. Creep is something turbine blades are very susceptible to as they operate under high stress and at high temperatures. Eliminating the grain boundaries within the structure meant that these weak areas which accelerate creep could be greatly reduced. As a result of the desire to reduce the number of grain boundaries within the turbine blade material, many modern turbine blades are made of a single crystal which allows the blades to withstand high temperatures and large mechanical loads.

To ensure turbine blades remain at an appropriate temperature, the blades may be coated with a low-conductivity ceramic. Furthermore, such blades will have cooling holes and channels throughout. The use of such cooling holes is outlined, for example, in Rolls-Royce Patent US 5,062,768 which states that: “film cooling holes are arranged in span wise rows along the flanks of the aerofoil portions of the blades or vanes so that the streams of cooling air emerging from the holes onto the external surface can collectively protect it from direct contact with the hot gases and carry heat away by merging together to form a more-or-less continuous film of cooling air flowing next to the surface”.

This cooling system is paramount in Roll-Royce’s Trent engines, which are used on aircrafts such as Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Progress in jet engine technology continues with a heavy focus in the last ten years on climate change mitigation technologies. Also, advancements in noise reduction methods and improvements in the engine materials used continue. Not only have jet engines been paramount in revolutionising the aerospace sector, but aero-derivative engines have also proved essential in other sectors, such as in the marine sector and in power generation. Overall, the jet engine has had an immeasurable impact on the lives of us all.

For more information please contact Ashleigh Waldron.

Lasers

Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation was first discovered in theory by Albert Einstein in 1917. Over a hundred years later, the theoretical discovery now permeates our modern technology. Lasers are used in autonomous vehicles, optical disk drives, printers, DNA sequencing instruments, semiconducting chip manufacturing and laser surgery.

The progress of self-driving cars has largely focused on the development of machine learning. Although many patent applications focus on protecting the neural network brain, there are increasingly more applications which cover LiDAR that acts as the eyes of the autonomous vehicle. LiDAR is able to provide a real-time 3D map of the vehicle’s surroundings. The increase in precision required for the manufacture of modern electronics has swelled the importance of lasers and increased the amount of patents covering manufacturing methods involving them.

Skin treatment is becoming increasingly popular with many clinics being devoted to skin care. Alongside the rise in the industry, skin treatment has also advanced by recruiting lasers. The frequency of light is proportional to the energy of each photon and so the coherent light source emitted by a laser allows a specific amount of energy to be delivered. This provides medical professionals with a tool to cause controlled tissue damage to skin that prompts the body’s healing response without causing any scarring.
Although methods of treatment performed on the human or animal body are specifically excluded under the European Patent Convention, the devices used for such treatment are not excluded.

For more information please contact Sudhakar Brodie.

Fibre optic communication

The introduction of fibre optics in the 1970s revolutionised the way we communicate. Compared to using copper wires, larger amounts of information could be transmitted for longer distances with lower attenuation rates.

In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter created the ‘Photophone’ which allowed for the transmission of sound on a beam of light through the air. However, the transmission of such communications was easily disrupted by the weather – and the invention, for which four patents were granted, was unable to be successfully commercialised at this time.

In image transmission, John Logie Baird transmitted images using glass rods in the 1920s, for which he obtained a patent, and then in 1953, Harold Hopkins and Narinder Singh Kapany worked on transmission of bundles of images using thousands of fibres.

In the 1960s, Charles Kao proposed fibres of very pure glass for transporting light and later won the Nobel Prize in Physics 2009 “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibres for optical communication”.

However, it was not until the 1970s that information was able to be transmitted successfully and reliably. Corning Glass Works obtained a patent in 1973 for a method of producing clad optical fibres, which describes improvements relating to the core/cladding interface in order to reduce scattering centres and to reduce loss and cross talk between adjacent fibres. The resulting fibres could carry 65,000 times more information than copper wire.

By 1977, the first telephone transmissions via optical fibre were tested by General Electric and commercial application on a greater scale soon followed. Improvements were made to bit-rate over the following years using single mode fibres which helped to address issues with modal dispersion, and then wavelength division multiplexing increased the data rate further by allowing information to be transmitted on different wavelengths of light, thus permitting a number of different signals to be transmitted on one fibre.

Fibre optic communications have led to drastic improvements in amounts of information that can be transmitted and the speeds at which the information can be transmitted, meeting increasing demand for Internet services. High-bandwidth tasks such as video on demand, use of cloud-based applications, and streaming services can be provided to users in their homes.

For more information speak to Kathryn Dainty.

Robotics

The concept of robotics arguably dates back to ancient Greece where, according to Greek mythology, Talos, a giant bronze automaton, circled the island of Crete three times daily to protect the Greek goddess, Europa. Whilst Talos may represent the first description of a robot, it was a long wait until the term ‘robotics’ was first used in print in 1941 by the author of ‘I Robot’, Isaac Asimov. Today, robotics is a well-established branch of technology dealing with the construction, design, operation and application of robots.

As a general definition, a robot is a machine which is capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. Increasingly, modern day robots are becoming fully autonomous systems, which are able to respond to changes in their environment without the need for human input. This progression has been driven by advances in artificial intelligence, mechatronics, object recognition and sensing and information processing.

Due to these advances, robotics now has applications in countless diverse fields, such as manufacturing, medicine, military technology, biohazards, social care, and space exploration. The prevalence of robots in cinema has also brought this technology to the forefront of the public consciousness.

In the area of medical robotics, the CyberKnife radiotherapy system is one example of where enormous benefits can be derived from the application of robotics. The CyberKnife system is a radiotherapy device mounted on a robot arm, of the same type as used in manufacturing for spray painting, which can move in 6 degrees of freedom around the patient. This enables delivery of precise doses of radiation from a much broader range of positions than with a conventional radiotherapy system. The system also includes X-ray and optical imaging systems to monitor the position of the target volume during treatment, allowing real-time adaptations to the treatment delivered.

Together, these aspects of the CyberKnife system can result in lower levels of irradiation of healthy tissue surrounding the treatment area, and result in improved outcomes for cancer patients.

The Atlas robot developed by Boston Dynamics is an example from a different field in which robotics has utility, being a bipedal robot designed to perform a variety of search and rescue tasks, and capable of moving independently over and through challenging terrain – although you may be more familiar with its gymnastics skills, for which it is arguably most famous.

These examples demonstrate that the application of robots is potentially limitless and can have a real and beneficial impact on the global population.

It is no surprise therefore that the robotics market is substantial, with the global industrial robotics market expected to grow in value to around $40.75 billion by 2024. In particular, the global medical robotics market is projected to be worth $4.09 billion by 2024.

Innovation in robotics is research-intensive and often collaborative. In this field innovation requires a network of research institutions and technology intensive firms working together to bring together know-how and build on the latest developments in materials science, motive power, control systems, sensing and computing. As a result, advances typically happen at the interface between public and private research, with firms commercialising innovations often developed through long-term partnerships with universities and other public research organisations.

Due to this model of collaboration, the capital-intensive nature of robotics R&D and with increasing numbers of players in the robotics field, a robust IP strategy is becoming ever more important to safeguard the interests of the various parties. In this way, patent protection can be particularly important in this field to allow companies to recoup their investment, and is particularly important where an invention can be reverse engineered. As the number of first patent filings in robotics has been increasing worldwide since the 1980s, the need for IP protection in this field continues to grow.

Alongside patents, trade secrets, design rights, copyright and trademarks are all important forms of IP that have application in the robotics innovation ecosystem.

For more information speak to Emma Lonnen and/or Kathryn Rose.

Photography

In the modern era, where almost everyone carries a device capable of taking high resolution photos in their pocket, it seems impossible to imagine a world without the ability to capture an image. However, although the camera obscura – a way of projecting an image onto a surface – has been known for centuries, it was not until the 19th century that a way of ‘fixing’ an image was discovered. The French inventor Nicéphore Niépce is usually credited with the invention of photography and in the late 1820s his partnership with Louis Daguerre, who refined Niépce’s process, led to the development of the ‘daguerreotype’. The value of this invention was recognised by the French government and the intellectual property was purchased from Daguerre in 1839 in exchange for an annual stipend. This was presented as a gift ‘free to the world’. A ‘world’ that did not, however, include England, where – five days prior to the French government’s announcement – Daguerre filed a patent, requiring licenses for the practice of the invention in England.

From these primitive beginnings, the technology continued to advance and, in 1868, Louis Arthur Ducos du Hauron patented the foundations of colour photography, using three different coloured dyes. Unfortunately for Ducos du Hauron, the technology required for implementing his invention was not yet mature enough for commercial exploitation – although his ideas did eventually make their way into the implementation of colour photography. It was not until George Eastman’s ‘Kodak’ camera that photography became accessible to the mass market. Eastman’s invention, protected by his patent filed for ‘Camera’ in 1888, used film and had a relatively low price. The success of the “Kodak” line of cameras led to Eastman renaming his entire company to Kodak. This company would go on to introduce, arguably, the final building block of modern photography with the invention of digital cameras. In 1977, the filing of the patent titled “Electronic still camera” protected this new invention, and while Kodak famously did not adopt this technology into its own products until much later, this patent helped Kodak to earn billions until its expiry in 2007.

Photography technologies continue to be developed to this day and with this continued development, and the proven benefits of patent protection, there is no doubt that these two industries will continue to share history.

For more information speak to Steven Davis.

​Lithium Ion Batteries

On 9 October 2019, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the award of the Nobel Prize for chemistry to Prof. John B Goodenough, Prof. M Stanley Whittingham and Prof. Akira Yoshino for their key roles in the development of lithium ion batteries (LIBs).

The pioneering work of the Nobel laureates enabled Sony to launch the first commercial rechargeable LIBs in 1991. Within a few years, the demand for LIBs was driven in particular by sale of camcorders.

The LIB commercialised by Sony contained a graphite anode based on Prof. Yoshino’s research at Asahi Kasei and a cathode based on the research of Prof. Goodenough at the University of Oxford, which in turn followed intercalation chemistry research of Prof. Whittingham at Exxon. Whilst Prof. Yoshino’s work was patented by Asahi Kasei, the University of Oxford did not do the same with Prof. Goodenough’s research.

As Prof. Goodenough said himself: “At the time we developed the battery it was just something to do. I didn’t know what electrical engineers would do with the battery. I really didn’t anticipate cellphones, camcorders and everything else”. Whilst the University’s approach to patenting has undoubtedly changed since then, Prof. Goodenough’s comments illustrate the challenge of any organisation seeking to protect its new technology, which includes predicting the commercial value of the technology and framing a patent application to best capture that predicted value. In the case of LIBs, this value includes not only improvements in LIBs per se but also applications of LIBs in things ranging from portable electronic devices to electric cars.

One week after the announcement of the Nobel Prize, the retailer John Lewis announced in its 2019 annual report that sales of camcorders were “practically non-existent”. While the technology that demonstrated the commercial viability of LIBs fades into obsolescence, research into LIBs and their associated patent filings continue to grow.

For more information speak to Anwar Gilani.

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the production or manipulation of materials having a size of less than 100 nanometres. To put this into context, one millimetre = 1,000,000 nanometres (nm). A human hair is between 50,000 and 100,000 nm thick. A piece of paper is around 75,000 nm thick.

Often thought of as a recent field of technology, nanotechnology has in fact been used for centuries. The Lycurgus Cup is an example of an ancient use of nanotechnology from around AD 293 to AD 476 — the cup shines green in reflected light, but red when light shines through it due to gold-silver alloyed nanoparticles distributed in the glass. More recently, nanotechnology has begun to appear in almost every aspect of our lives.

For example, sunscreen includes UV absorbing nanoparticles, self-cleaning windows include a nanoparticle coating, nanotechnology research is producing lifesaving medical treatments and nanoparticles have applications in the electronics, textiles and food industries to name a few.

This upsurge of the technology in our lives is reflected in the increase in patent applications filed over the last 20 years. The European Patent Office (EPO) specifically defines nanotechnology as involving “entities with a controlled geometrical size of at least one functional component below 100nm in one or more dimensions” and classifies associated patent applications under the EPO’s Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC) class B82.

However, the wide range of applications of nanotechnology across disparate industries, and thus the wide range of classifications used for related patent applications, means that the true number of nanotechnology applications filed at the EPO is hard to measure and the applications themselves are hard to search.

Despite the relatively simple definition, neither using nor patenting nanotechnology inventions is straightforward. Since the sharp increase in nanotechnology-related inventions is relatively recent, some granted claims in the nanotechnology field can be overly broad. Whether this is due to classification issues or a true lack of prior disclosure is not always clear, but such broad claims bring into question the validity of the claims and third parties’ freedom to operate across a whole range of unrelated industries, causing problems for patentees and competitors alike.

Furthermore, from a patenting perspective, merely making something smaller does not mean an invention is novel and inventive. Therefore, if a technology is already known on a larger scale, does reproducing it on a nanoscale meet the requirements of patentability? For some technologies the answer would appear to be a resounding ‘yes’, since there can be significant technical challenges to overcome in miniaturising macroscopic systems or materials, not to mention in handling the quantum effects arising in any resulting nanoscale structures. In situations where the change in size is less significant, for example for a selection of a nanoscale range from a slightly larger range already known in the art, the 2019 EPO Guidelines (following T 261/15), state that the selected sub-range is considered novel if:

  • the selected sub-range is narrow compared to the known range;
  • and – the selected sub-range is sufficiently far removed from any specific examples disclosed in the prior art and from the end-points of the known range.

This selected sub-range is also considered to involve an inventive step if an “unexpected technical effect” applies to the entire range claimed. The technical effect is “unexpected” if no hints exist in the prior art that lead the skilled person to that selection. Such a novel and non-obvious selection was seen in the decision of BASF v Orica Australia (T 0547/99), in which the EPO’s Technical Board of Appeal held that disclosure of polymer nanoparticles larger than 111 nm did not destroy the novelty of a subsequent patent application by Orica for nanoparticles smaller than 100 nm. Orica’s smaller particles also exhibited a remarkable improvement in the properties of the paint in which they were used, resulting in a glossier coat compared to the larger particles disclosed in the earlier patent.

Whilst the use and protection of nanotechnology inventions can present some challenges, the drive to innovate in the field shows no signs of slowing down and there are great opportunities for patenting these advances. From renewable energy to cancer fighting nanomedicines, nanotechnology has brought about endless advances across all areas of science and engineering, and there is certainly more to come.

Please see here for imagery of the Lycurgus Cup.

For more information speak to Alexandra Seymour-Pierce and/or Emma Bridgland.

Air conditioning

Air conditioning is not a new phenomenon. Yet many of our day to day activities either could not occur or would be extremely uncomfortable without it – imagine train or aircraft journeys without air conditioning! Temperatures in offices during the summer without air conditioning could be unbearable and even computers would overheat without air conditioning systems providing rooms with a constant supply of cooling air.

Air conditioning has been an idea in the minds of engineers since the time of the pharaohs. The early Egyptians would hang reeds, which would be kept damp with trickling water, in their windows. Air passing the damp reeds would evaporate the water cooling the air temperature, and thus the room, whilst adding humidity to dry desert air. Ancient Romans pumped water from their aqueducts through pipes in the walls of their homes to try and keep cool, whilst Chinese inventors used rotary fans to move air through rooms and spray from water fountains to reduce the temperature of the air.

The Medieval era did not see much improvement in the area of air conditioning. It seems that the main ideas used to try to keep rooms cool was to have large windows to let in a breeze but to make sure that sunlight could not directly enter that window to heat the air in the room.

In fact, until around the 18th century, most efforts to control the temperature of air in a room remained using water and air movement. In 1758, Benjamin Franklin and Cambridge University Professor John Hadley discovered that the temperature of an object could be reduced below the freezing point of water by the evaporation of highly volatile liquids such as alcohol and ether. And in 1820, Michael Faraday found that when compressed and liquefied Ammonia evaporated, it cooled the air. Neither of these innovations was protected by IP rights and both were available to be built on by other inventors.

The first step towards air conditioning occurred towards the end of the 1840s in America. Dr Gorrie believed that high temperatures caused illness and wanted to cool hospital rooms to increase patient comfort. As a result, Dr Gorrie invented what is regarded to be the first mechanised artificial room cooling. A patent, US 008,080, was granted to Dr Gorrie on 6th May 1851 for his Ice Maker which was a compressor powered by movement from an animal, air, water, or steam.

However, Dr Gorrie was unable to benefit from this patent because he was unable to acquire financial backing for his invention. He also had the small issue of political pressure from the ice industry in the North. Clearly, such an invention would threaten the ice industry because why would anyone import ice from far away when it could be made closer to or at home?

The invention of the modern air conditioner, although it was not known by the term “air conditioner” at the time, is attributed to Willis Carrier. His patent application, US 808,897, was granted on 2nd January 1906. The invention came about due to Carrier being tasked with providing a solution to preventing paper from wrinkling in humid summers with a view to improving printing quality. It was already known to heat objects with steam by sending air over hot coils. However, Carrier altered the process by filling the coils with cool water to produce cool air. Essentially, Carrier had invented a modern version of the Egyptian water reed system, except it no longer relied on a naturally occurring breeze. Instead, the air could be moved by a fan powered by electricity.

Shortly after, Stewart Cramer was confronted with a problem of how to add moisture to the air in a textile mill. His solution was to combine moisture with a ventilation system. The resultant invention, A Humidifying and Air-Conditioning Apparatus, had a patent application granted, US 852, 833, on the 7th May 1907. It was, in fact, Cramer who coined the phrase “air conditioning” after his invention combined the control of the humidity and temperature of air. This was achieved by spraying a heated liquid into the air to increase humidity or a cooled liquid into the air to reduce humidity. The apparatus comprised a series of separator plates which the air was forced around in a tortuous fashion. Therefore, liquid would be collected on the plates due to inertial forces as it was drawn along the path through the plates.

Carrier further applied his invention to other applications for air conditioning technologies, including industrial manufacturing facilities and indoor theatres. It has been suggested that Carrier’s technology being installed in the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, New York City, in 1925, may have led to the rise of the summer movie blockbuster. Before this, the inside of a movie theatre would have been too hot during the summer for people to sit and watch films and so instead, would normally have been closed in the summer months.

Carrier further developed his air conditioning systems and in February 1914 was issued a patent, US 1,085,971, for a Method of Humidifying Air and Controlling the Humidity and Temperature Thereof. By 1922, his system had been refined and the size of the entire unit reduced. This ‘centrifugal chiller’ was the first practical method of air conditioning for large spaces and used a centrifugal compressor similar to the centrifugal turning blades of a water pump instead of a piston driven reciprocal compressor. This ‘centrifugal chiller’ also replaced the previously toxic and flammable refrigerants so that a safer air conditioning unit could be used in homes.

Since then, inventors have been working to improve the modern air conditioning system. This includes inventors like David Crosthwait, who has 39 US patents granted to him for inventions related to heating and ventilation. In more recent times, the focus has been on producing more efficient systems, as evidenced by US patent no. 8,744,632, for an energy efficient air conditioning unit, and in improving air conditioning systems used in the transport industry.

For more information speak to Jack Rogan.

3D printing

3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing – depositing material under computer control) has revolutionised how certain products are made. It is seen by many as an important disruptive technology, enabling the flexible design and production of complex parts, on-demand and with less waste.

The technology gained attention in the early 1980s, and one of the first notable patent applications for this technology was filed in 1984 by Charles Hull, which related to a process called stereolithography involving directing a beam of ultraviolet radiation into liquid photopolymer, causing it to solidify into plastic, the trace of the beam creating successive layers of an object. Its potential was seen by many and the 1990s saw further innovation. In 1994, Scott Crump of StrataSys Inc. filed a patent application for a fused depositing modelling (FDM) process which is the process that most will be familiar with – extruding heated thermoplastic through a print head nozzle to build up layers. The late 1990s also saw interest in 3D bioprinting, particularly the fabrication of biological matter, with the potential to replicate functioning tissue and organs.

By the end of the 1990s, the annual number of worldwide patent filings was modest, but maintaining growth. That figure started increasing rapidly after the year 2000, perhaps triggered by the availability of lower-cost printers. To date, according to one dataset, well over 30,000 patent applications had been published worldwide that involved some involvement with 3D printing.

Recent filings relate to areas such as the use of sustainable materials, medical uses, and even printing food and buildings!

For more information speak to Rob Sayer.

Artificial hip system

A story of collaboration and innovation: The earliest recorded attempts at hip replacement were carried out in 1891 using ivory to replace the femoral head, the ball of the ball and socket joint of the hip. Development continued very slowly because of the difficulty in finding suitable materials to replace the acetabulum, the socket of the joint. John Charnley, MD, at his clinic in Manchester, England, aggressively pursued the idea of a “low friction hip” in which the ball was replaced with a stainless steel stem and ball and the socket with a Teflon cup secured with acrylic cement. Importantly, the size of the ball was reduced in an effort to reduce wear. The Teflon, although low friction, proved to be too soft and so a denser material was sought. As a result of a lucky, but confused, encounter with a plastic salesman, Charnley came across polyethylene. By 1961, hip replacements using the Charnley hip, a combination of a stainless steel stem and dense polyethylene socket were performed regularly.

Robin Ling, MD, of Exeter, England working with engineer Clive Lee, built on Charnley’s work and studied the use of collarless tapered stems secured by bone cement. He patented his system in 1975, GB1409054B. Aware of the phenomenon of “creep” in bone cement, Ling went on to produce a collarless, polished, tapered stem with the capability to subside in the cement. The stem performed like a wedge moving and tightening at the stem-cement border. It was patented by Ling and Mikhail, EP 0530323B, which related to a Co-Cr version of the hip with a specified surface roughness. The patent was opposed by three companies but survived.

For more information speak to Julie Mays.

Automotive

Automotive inventions have come a long way from the Benz Patent Motor Car in 1886 and Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s 1768 self-propelled land based mechanical vehicle. The advances in technology over the last century have been significant; from Mary Anderson’s 1903 patent application for windscreen wipers, to fully electric vehicles with solar paintwork and the race to patent self-driving vehicle technology.

A recent study by the European Patent Office (carried out with the European Council for Automotive R&D – EUCAR) showed that in the last 10 years 18,000 patent applications were filed at the EPO for self-driving vehicle related inventions. From 2011 to 2017 patent applications filed at the EPO relating to self-driving vehicles increased by 330%, in comparison to a 16% increase in the same period across all technologies1.

Interestingly, the top four companies who filed these applications are not traditional automotive companies but ICT related companies. This shows how the automotive industry is evolving. A transport revolution is anticipated, with large scale production of self-driving vehicles expected to take off in the next few years.

Of course it is not only patent applications which have provided IP protection for the automotive industry. Registered Designs are widely used to protect the visible aesthetics of vehicles including parts and interiors. More recently there has been a rise in filings for Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) intended for in-vehicle systems. In a rapidly evolving industry, the relatively low cost and quick registration ensures Registered Designs remain an attractive option to those wishing to protect their IP.

For more information speak to Emma Bridgland.

Solar energy

Solar power is often thought of as a relatively new technology. However, it all started in 1839 when Alexandre Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect which explains how electricity can be generated from sunlight. Despite the interest that followed, it took until the 1950s for what many consider to be the first practical solar cell to be developed by Bell Labs in the USA and for which a patent application was filed. It only offered 6% efficiency (the percentage of light that is converted to electricity), but it did provide usable power for several hours on a sunny day.

More recent innovation has been driven by the global impetus to reduce dependence on fossil fuels whilst catering for increasing demands on energy. Hoffman Electronics Corporation filed patent applications for photovoltaic cells achieving up to 14% efficiency, and such cells became an important power source for spacecraft and satellites. Materials innovation then became a big driver in pushing efficiency increasingly higher.

Figures reveal that nearly 15,000 patent applications were filed worldwide in 2017 for renewable energy, a 43% increase from the previous year. Of this, more than half were for solar power. A correlation is seen between a drop in the cost of solar cells and the number of patent filings. Patents are seen as an important driver in solar energy, acting as an incentive for research in this area and the sharing of innovation through standards bodies. Some patent offices, including the UKIPO, offer fast track “green channel” processing for applications relating to renewables. With solar energy expected to supply half of the world’s energy in the next 25 years, this trend is likely to continue.

For more information speak to Rob Sayer.

Microscopy

The field of microscopy has undergone enormous change in the last few years, thanks to the Nobel Prize winning development of a class of techniques collectively known as ‘super resolution microscopy’.

In the past, the resolution it was possible to achieve with a light microscope was limited by diffraction to around 250 nanometres. However, with super-resolution microscopy it is now possible to achieve resolutions more than an order of magnitude greater, down to around 20 nanometres or less. This has been particularly important in the field of biology, where many of the structures and processes in which scientists are interested occur over spatial scales significantly smaller than the diffraction limit. For their contributions to the development of the field, Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell, and W.E. Moerner were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Broadly speaking, super resolution microscopy achieves this much higher resolution by circumventing the diffraction limit. A typical super resolution image is in fact a reconstruction composed of the localisations of many different molecules, determined from many images in which different molecules are emitting light. This allows each molecule to be localised with much higher precision than would have been possible were all of the molecules imaged at the same time, with their diffraction patterns overlapping.

In a classic story of failure coming before great invention, the path to the Nobel Prize was not straightforward for Eric Betzig in particular. Along the way he quit science and had started working for his father’s engineering firm, before coming up with up with the concept which would go on to become Photo-activated Localisation Microscopy (PALM) – one of the first, and now main, super-resolution techniques – and building the first prototype of the microscope in the living room of a fellow scientist and friend.

Although a patent for a super-resolution microscope was first granted in the 1980s to a Russian scientist, Victor Okhonin (SU1374922), it was only later experimental demonstrations by Betzig, Moerner and Hell et al. which led to these techniques becoming widely available.

For more information speak to Emma Lonnen.

Plastics

“I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? … Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.” – Mr McGuire, The Graduate, 1967.

The writers of The Graduate, seeking something utterly dull with which to bore the young Dustin Hoffmann, could think of nothing worse than plastics. After all, at that time many of the polymers which still surround us today (PVC, PTFE, Nylon, polythene, polystyrene …) had long since been invented and had passed into humdrum, everyday use. Nevertheless, 50 years later, Mr McGuire’s words have proven to be remarkably prescient; developments in polymer technology have had a major impact in very diverse fields.

One of these many fields is aviation, in which aircraft increasingly make use of strong, lightweight composites, in particular carbon fibre composites, as reflected in the roughly 850 international patent applications in the name of Airbus or Boeing containing “composite” in the title or abstract of the patent application. An analysis of these filings reveals a sharp increase in the number of these patent filings in the early 2000s followed by a tailing off after about 2008, suggesting a move from research towards commercialisation of these composites or, perhaps more likely, an increasing reliance by these manufacturers on third party companies specialising in the development of new composites.

Another is photolithography, which is used to make circuitry. According to Moore’s Law, the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years, and the invention of chemically amplified photoresists helped the computer industry keep pace with this law during the 80s.

While composites and photoresists have already had a major impact on their respective industries, new applications of polymers are being explored in many other fields such as conducting polymers which offer the prospect of printed electronic devices, biocompatible polymers for implants or scaffolds for tissue growth and 3D printed products. Sound patent protection will almost certainly be an essential component of a successful commercialisation for any company operating in these fields.

Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.

For more information speak to Anwar Gilani.

Synthetic Textiles

The march of technology is such that what was once seen as miraculous can quickly become mundane. Synthetic textiles are a case in point; while they are commonplace today, the first synthetic textile, nylon, merited exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York alongside early televisions and General Motors’ “Futurama” model of highways connecting the nation (a precursor of Smell-O-Vision, which has not fared so well in the intervening years, was also exhibited).

Synthetic and natural textiles are formed from polymers, which is to say organic molecules linked together in long chains. The naturally occurring polymer, cellulose, was used to make textiles in the late 19th century, however the structure of cellulose, or indeed polymers generally, was not known. The long, chain-like structure of polymers was suggested in the 1920s by Hermann Staudinger who went on to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1953 for his work in this area. However, the question of polymer structure was far from settled when, in 1928, an academic named Wallace Carothers moved from Harvard University to a DuPont laboratory created for “establishing or discovering new scientific facts” rather than any specific commercial goals. At DuPont, Carothers tested the theory that polymers are formed from chains of organic molecules using two organic molecules (A and B) known to react with each other to give a product (A-B) with the difference that each of the organic molecules was provided with two reactive groups, rather than only one, allowing each molecule of A to react with two molecules of B and vice versa, so creating polymer chains (A-B-A-B-A-B- …. ). In this way, Carothers succeeded in producing polyesters which his team found could be drawn out into fibres, although these initial synthetic polymers were not suitable for commercial use as textiles. It was not until 1935 that DuPont researchers found the combination of organic molecules which yielded what was to become known as nylon.

A number of patent applications were filed to protect these innovations and a total of 55 US patents were issued to DuPont in which Carothers is named as the sole inventor or a co-inventor. Nylon was a huge hit with the public; so much so that “nylons” became synonymous with stockings and there were “nylon riots” at the end of World War II when supply did not satisfy demand. Eventually, threatened with an antitrust suit, DuPont licensed other companies to make nylon. Nylon was followed by a plethora of other synthetic textiles that are ubiquitous to this day, including polyesters and acrylics. However, in recent years there has been increasing recognition of the environmental problems that can be caused by synthetic textiles in their manufacture, their low biodegradability and the release of microplastics during washing. While this has led to renewed interest in natural textiles, synthetic textiles remain attractive due to their low cost and versatility, spurring ongoing research into solutions to these problems such as development of cleaner manufacturing processes, biodegradable synthetic textiles and microplastic capture technologies.

For more information speak to Anwar Gilani.

Traffic signals

While the average road-user’s appreciation for traffic signals is primarily based on how many red lights they encounter on their morning commute, it is difficult to dispute the profound contributions they have made to traffic flow optimisation and road safety over the last century.

The world’s first traffic signal was installed in Westminster in 1868, making use of railway-style semaphore arms lit by red and green gas lamps, manually rotated by an attendant. Unfortunately, while initially successful, a gas explosion caused the system to be shelved after less than a month of operation.

The first patent for an electric traffic signal was filed in 1913 by American inventor James Hoge, though it was not until 1920 that the familiar red-amber-green signal was developed.
The advent of widespread computing in 1950s America revolutionised traffic management, allowing for hundreds of signals to be controlled automatically based on the inputs of pressure-sensitive plates that gave an indication of inbound and outbound traffic. More recently, artifical intelligence based systems have been developed to minimise time spent idling at lights, thereby decreasing journey times and reducing vehicular carbon emissions.

Looking to the future, as the connectivity of road-users increases, ‘smart’ traffic management could incorporate data from a wider array of sources, such as vehicle computers and road-user mobile devices. Going further, the advent of autonomous vehicles offers exciting opportunities for further improvements to both road safety and efficiency.

For more information speak to William Grace.

Portable music

On 19 February 1878, Thomas Edison was awarded a patent for his invention – the phonograph. The phonograph is widely acknowledged as the first device that could both record and reproduce sound.

Ongoing improvements to the phonograph in the 1880s resulted in the more widely recognised gramophone. Although these devices are technically portable, the size and relative delicacy of their constituent components and the records they play seem almost light years apart from the ubiquitous portable music devices that we know and rely on today.

Developments in this field continued from the phonograph, but the introduction of the audio cassette tape in the 1960s arguably marked the start of a period of exponential innovation. The cassette tape was patented in 1965 and made available to manufacturers all over the world who began to design new and more compact portable devices to use these cassettes. The first devices developed were certainly more portable than a gramophone. A patent application for a “stereobelt” was first filed in the UK in 1978, but the launch of personal cassette players in 1979 suddenly made music accessible in a way that had never previously been possible. This breakthrough was quickly followed by the release of the compact disc (CD) and the accompanying portable CD player in 1982. Up to the 1990s, cassettes and CDs were the most common formats of popular music and thousands of patents have been filed with respect to these recording mediums and the devices that use them.

It was only in a short space of time, however, that the transition to digital forms of data storage began to dominate the word of portable music. The release of digital portable media players in 2001 suddenly enabled the owner to carry a thousand songs in their pockets, as well as photos, videos and games. As this field has continued to develop, the devices carrying music data have become smaller and/or more complex. Today, the ability to carry music in combination with your mobile telephone is accepted as standard.
As a reflection of this change, the patent applications associated with portable music devices have also transitioned from single function devices to more complex electro-mechanical and software dominated devices capable of performing a multitude of functions.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in 2014, the revenue from digital music services matched those from physical format sales for the first time. Yet, as recent years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records, it seems that developments in portable music devices may still be diverse.

For more information speak to Kathryn Rose.

Wearable technology

Over the last 100 years there has been a tremendous amount of interest in integrating technology with the human body. Today, wearable devices are seemingly available for use with every part of our anatomy.

From eyeglasses incorporating augmented reality displays to smart belts that can keep a track of waist size, the possibilities appear endless.
Wearable technology has roots stemming back to the Digital Revolution, which began in the second-half of the 20th century. The digital wristwatch may be considered the great grandparent to the wearable technology of today. The concept of a wristwatch with a digital display was patented by the Hamilton Watch Company, which released the Pulsar wristwatch in 1972. This was the first commercial wristwatch to bear a digital (LED) display.

After this, watch manufacturers constantly sought to further functionalise their watches by incorporating even more pieces of everyday technology into them, such as stopwatches, calculators, radios and even televisions. This helped to normalise the concept of a multifunctional wristwatch: a wristwatch that could do anything. In particular, it was soon realised that wristwatches could be ideal devices for monitoring bodily functions, such as heart rate, because they are generally worn day-to-day and for long periods.

The first fingertip-mounted device for monitoring heart rate was invented in the late 1970s and patented. One of the inventors went on to help found the Finnish company, Polar Electro, which, in the early 1980s, launched the first commercially available portable heart rate monitoring device, the Sport Tester PE 2000. The device utilised a chest strap which could sense the wearer’s heart beat and send the signals indicative of the heart beat wirelessly to a digital wristwatch.

This amalgamation of wristwatches with heart rate monitors represents a critical juncture in the history of wearables and it set a trend, which has continued unabated into the 21st century, with the modern “smartwatches” packing in the ability to monitor heart rate, blood oxygen levels and even sleep patterns. The early wearable devices noted above were generally standalone devices having a non-existent, or very limited, ability to communicate electronically with other devices. Advances in communications technology, in particular wireless data transmission, over the last 30 years have been central to the evolution of wearable technology.

During the 1990s, there was a surge in the development of technology that could enable the wireless transmission and reception of relatively large amounts of data between two devices. Many wireless standards were developed under what are now familiar monikers, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and this led to an explosion in the number of patent rights directed to wireless communications protocols. The patent landscape became complex, with many of these rights overlapping. As a consequence, it became difficult for one company to implement its innovation in a product without infringing another party’s patent rights. This led to the formation of “patent pools” in the sector, through which right-holders granted cross-licenses and licences to multiple patents in bulk, rather than on a patent-by-patent basis.

One of the key requirements for wearable devices has always been that they should be as small and as lightweight as possible so that the user can gain the benefits of the technology without feeling encumbered. The merger between wearable devices and wireless communications technology has undoubtedly helped to address this need. For example, by incorporating wireless modems into wearable devices, less on-board storage capacity on the wearable device itself is required. As a consequence, wearable devices can be made even more compact. Wireless headphones are a good example of a type of wearable technology that has greatly benefited from advances in wireless data transmission. Another example is sportswear (such as a football shirt) that incorporates an electronic tracker that can measure a sportsperson’s movements and seamlessly transmit performance data to a remote computer for analysis.

The potential for wearable technology seems limitless and it is exciting to imagine how it might evolve over the next 100 years. Although wrist-mounted wearable devices have probably been the most widely-adopted piece of wearable technology to date, in view of recent developments such as smart rings and smart contact lenses, all bets are off as to whether that will remain the case.

For more information speak to Ben Beasley.


1 Yann Ménière, Ilja Rudyk, Lucas Tsitsilonis, “Patents and self-driving vehicles”, The inventions behind automated driving, November 2018, European Patent Office in co-operation with eucar, 2018, http://documents.epo.org/projects/babylon/eponet.nsf/0/65910DF6D3F02057C125833C004DB1E6/$File/self_driving_vehicles_study_en.pdf