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Fictional depictions of the 21st century often imagined the skies filled with drones.
But nearly two decades in, this prediction seems far from reality. Even the world’s mightiest of retailers, Amazon, has only trialled deliveries by drone.
But new data suggests we could be on the cusp of change and those fanciful visions of the future might be about to finally take off.
Data from the World Intellectual Property Office for the 2016-2017 financial year shows patents filed for technology related to drones hit a new high of 5,301 – more than quadrupling from the 1,242 the prior year.
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Credit for technological advancement is usually given to Silicon Valley but the crucial factor behind the spike is a deluge of patent filings from China.
Gwilym Roberts, partner at Kilburn & Strode and author of A Practical Guide to Drafting Patents, said the increase suggested major developments were likely in the next few years.
“Patents have a 20-year life so it is a land grab for future technologies,” he says.
Major recent drone announcements have come from the likes of Amazon and delivery giant UPS. In December 2016, the online retailer started a drone delivery trial in the UK with two shoppers receiving their items by drone.
And the following month, UPS unveiled its first residential delivery drone test that was launched from an electric van fitted with a recharging station for the battery-powered drone.
This method means the battery life of the drone (which is about 30 minutes) can be extended.
But the huge rise in patents revealed by the latest data does not necessarily herald the arrival of masses of skybound packages, experts suggest.
Instead, it signifies the likely rise in use of drones across a burgeoning number of industries.
Robert Garbett, chief executive of Drone Major Group, said: “It’s more to do with the widening applications of drones. The whole thing about delivering packages is a PR campaign.
“It is a great concept and gets the media excited but I don’t think it is where the industry is going.”
Drones are now widely used in the film and TV industry, for surveillance purposes and for increasingly complex tasks such as performing digital scans of large vessels or oil rigs to search for any damage.
The word “drone” tends to conjure up images of a quadruple-propellered flying object but those in the industry suggest it really means any unmanned vessel.
Garbett says autonomous catamarans carrying a flying drone are sent out to the likes of offshore oil rigs.
Once they arrive, the air-based drone surveys the rig, collecting the necessary data, and then lands back on the marine vessel for the return journey.
Accounting giant KPMG set up a new team focused on artificial intelligence and emerging technologies just six months ago, to help meet the growing demand from clients for advice on how to better use tech to help them solve problems.
Murray Raisbeck, who works in the team, said there had been a “big shift” in how companies were more actively trying to embrace technological advancements for their own gain.
“There’s been a big supply push from the drone manufacturers and now the supply and demand sides are starting to meet,” he said.
Besides the natural resources and mining sectors, Raisbeck says the insurance industry is trying to quickly embrace drones.
“If there is a natural disaster or a commercial insurance claim where a large property or site in a remote location is damaged, you can get a drone out to assess it,” he says.
“There are really clear statistics that the quicker you get to a claim in a natural disaster, the better.”
Beyond this, the insurance industry is also looking at the best ways to insure drones, whichever sector they are being used in.
“There’s the potential for them to cause accidents,” Raisbeck says. “Lots of insurers are thinking about drone insurance.”
The jump in patent filings was driven by China’s Ewatt Technology, which filed 110 patents in the 2016-2017 financial year.
The actual amount of patent activity concerning drones may be even higher, as many governments have the right to make some patents, usually those that relate to military uses, national secrets.
The rise in drone patent filings is primarily due to rapidly growing competition between manufacturers vying to have the most up-to-date technology.
Experts suggest the majority of companies filing patents tend to be small businesses hoping to strike gold by being bought out.
The rapid growth of drone sales for both recreational purposes and commercial uses continues to fuel research and development across China, the US and Europe.
China overtook the US in 2012-2013 and now has the highest number of drone patent filings per country at 4,106, with the US on 496 in 2016-2017.
“The competition between drone developers is fierce and they recognise that patents are vital to protect investment in R&D,” Roberts says.
“This patent drone warfare is only just starting; with the commercial value, rapid rate of development and escalating filings, we see the classic ingredients for legal battles shaping up.”
Whatever the outcome of such litigation, KPMG’s Raisbeck believes that the prevalence of drones will undoubtedly increase in the coming years.
“The technology is becoming increasingly robust and I think it will be [a] fairly widespread adoption.”
– The Telegraph, London