Earlier this month the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing regarding the emergence of new aerospace technologies—particularly Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) — and how they can be incorporated into existing airspace systems. As unmanned aerospace innovation grows, regulatory agencies correspondingly must consider how to coordinate and regulate the operations of commercial airplanes together with unmanned vehicles (e.g. passenger drones and flying cars) which will presumably fly much closer to the ground and operate out of locations other than airports regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The very occurrence of such a hearing is indicative of a growing wave of innovation in the field of UAS and UAV.
In general, aerospace patent applications have increased by about 50% in the United States since 2006. However, this increase in aerospace filings does not necessarily correspond to an increase in UAS and UAV innovation. The largest filer and owner of aerospace patents in the United States is Boeing. Boeing’s more recent patent applications tend to focus on commercial airplane innovation. The patent applications range from useful to more bizarre. In 2013, Boeing filed a patent application on a “transport vehicle upright sleep support system,” which is essentially a backpack which attaches to a standard airplane seat and sits around the front of the passenger. The backpack has a cushion so a passenger may lean into the backpack and rest.See Pat. No. 8,985,693. This is of course a more humorous example; Boeing has and continues to steadily innovate in traditional areas of aerospace technology.
Boeing and other major U.S. aerospace corporations do not appear to be as focused on UAV development as other corporations and countries around the world. Currently, China far outpaces other foreign jurisdictions as the preferred location for obtaining UAV patents. As of 2017, there were more than 14,000 Chinese UAV patents and pending applications. Part of these figures correspond to Chinese companies filing recreational UAV patents, such as toy drones. However, as China establishes itself as a preferred country for protecting UAV technologies, and as Chinese corporations take a larger share of the UAV/UAS markets, it is fair to wonder when and if U.S. corporations like Boeing will enter into this competitive market. Amazon, with its increasing number of filings for drones and drone delivery systems, is certainly working to capture a large share of the market. It remains to be seen whether other U.S. corporations will follow suit.