The aerospace and defence industry continues to be a hotbed of innovation, with activity driven by the need to lower operational costs, larger consumer trends, and electrification, and growing importance of technologies such as hydrogen and electric aircraft and advanced materials. In the last three years alone, there have been over 174,000 patents filed and granted in the aerospace and defence industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Environment Sustainability in Aerospace, Defence & Security: Solar-powered UAVs. Buy the report here.

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However, not all innovations are equal and nor do they follow a constant upward trend. Instead, their evolution takes the form of an S-shaped curve that reflects their typical lifecycle from early emergence to accelerating adoption, before finally stabilising and reaching maturity. 

Identifying where a particular innovation is on this journey, especially those that are in the emerging and accelerating stages, is essential for understanding their current level of adoption and the likely future trajectory and impact they will have. 

180+ innovations will shape the aerospace and defence industry 

According to GlobalData’s Technology Foresights, which plots the S-curve for the aerospace and defence industry using innovation intensity models built on over 262,000 patents, there are 180+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry. 

Within the emerging innovation stage, hydrogen fuel cells, contrarotating propeller spinners, and fuel cells for aircrafts are disruptive technologies that are in the early stages of application and should be tracked closely. EV charging stations, hybrid propulsion aircraft engines, and electric aircraft charging interfaces are some of the accelerating innovation areas, where adoption has been steadily increasing. Among maturing innovation areas are fuselage frame modelling and powered wheels for aircraft landing, which are now well established in the industry.  

Innovation S-curve for environmental sustainability in the aerospace and defence industry 

Solar-powered UAVs is a key innovation area in environmental sustainability 

Solar-powered UAVs that use on-board solar cells capture the solar energy that reaches the surface of the aircraft during the day. This generated energy feeds the engine, powers the aircraft and other electronic equipment, and charges on-board batteries. The battery provides power even in the dark and under clouds. 

GlobalData’s analysis also uncovers the companies at the forefront of each innovation area and assesses the potential reach and impact of their patenting activity across different applications and geographies. According to GlobalData, there are 10+ companies, spanning technology vendors, established aerospace and defence companies, and up-and-coming start-ups engaged in the development and application of solar-powered UAVs. 

Key players in solar-powered UAVs – a disruptive innovation in the aerospace and defence industry 

‘Application diversity’ measures the number of different applications identified for each relevant patent and broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators. 

‘Geographic reach’ refers to the number of different countries each relevant patent is registered in and reflects the breadth of geographic application intended, ranging from ‘global’ to ‘local’. 

Patent volumes related to solar-powered UAVs

Company Total patents (2021 - 2023) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Boeing 48 Unlock Company Profile
SoftBank Group 33 Unlock Company Profile
AeroVironment 21 Unlock Company Profile
Airbus 19 Unlock Company Profile
Meta Platforms 18 Unlock Company Profile
Meditor European Master Fund 13 Unlock Company Profile
Safran 11 Unlock Company Profile
MicroLink Devices 10 Unlock Company Profile
Wing Aviation 9 Unlock Company Profile
BAE Systems 9 Unlock Company Profile
XSun 8 Unlock Company Profile
SkyX 8 Unlock Company Profile
Alphabet 8 Unlock Company Profile
Walmart 8 Unlock Company Profile
Karem Aircraft 8 Unlock Company Profile
EADS Deutschland 7 Unlock Company Profile
SZ DJI Technology 5 Unlock Company Profile
IP Group 5 Unlock Company Profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Boeing is one of the leading patent filers in solar-powered UAVS. Through its subsidiary, Aurora Flight Sciences, the company is developing Odysseus. This is a High Altitude Platform System (HAPS), which is a long endurance high altitude unmanned platform. The pltform is intended to provide persistent ISR and communication services to military, civil, and commercial customers. Other key patent filers include AeroVironment, SoftBank and Airbus.  

In terms of application diversity, Boeing leads the pack. AeroVironment and Safran stood in second and third positions respectively. Regarding geographic reach, BAE Systems held the top position, followed by EADS and Safran.  

Solar-powered UAVs are a promising new segment of the aerospace market, with applications ranging from persistent ISR in border and maritime patrol, to providing secure comms bubbles in defense contexts, to enhancing broadband in remote areas and in areas of great demand. As the systems rely upon solar power, they do not need to carry power sources with them, allowing them to stay aloft for verry long periods. Groups such as the HAPS Alliance are actively pushing to develop standards and regulations globally to facilitate the rollout of a HAPS market.  

To further understand the key themes and technologies disrupting the aerospace and defence industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Defence

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GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article.

GlobalData’s Patent Analytics tracks patent filings and grants from official offices around the world. Textual analysis and official patent classifications are used to group patents into key thematic areas and link them to specific companies across the world’s largest industries.