During the last week of March the prominent European Patent Office (EPO) issued its annual Patent Index of 2022. Since the registration of new patents generally provides an early insight into the latest innovation and inventions, the index offers some interesting information regarding the innovation performance of countries.
One of the main benefits of patent registration is that it provides legal protection for new inventions and ideas, allowing inventors and businesses to protect their intellectual property and commercialise their innovations.
It is this protection that often encourages entrepreneurs and investors to invest in research and development, as it provides a mechanism for companies to recoup their costs and profit from their inventions.
Patents further facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and technology, as they require inventors to disclose the details of their invention in order to be granted a patent.
This often leads to the development of new technologies and the creation of new markets, as other inventors and businesses build on existing ideas and develop new or complementary applications for them.
From the EPO Patent Index it is evident that there were numerous “smart” technology filings that included areas from transport to healthcare.
One of the areas that showed a significant increase in the registration of patents is digital and clean-energy technologies.
As the use of renewable energy sources expand, the interest in smart grids to balance the increasingly complex task of supply and demand is growing.
From the registered patents it is evident that the current emphasis in smart grids is on smart energy storage systems, metering infrastructure, distribution boards and circuit breakers. All these elements are now interconnected and monitored through the use of fibre broadband and a wireless back-up system.
It is clear that future digital energy infrastructure must be able to effectively exchange information such as that created by smart home energy management systems.
Storing of renewable energy
In the registration of patents, the storing of renewable energy received much attention. It is clear that patents are moving away from the constraints of traditional energy storage systems such as pumped-storage hydro-electricity plants.
One example is the usage of locally produced salt for the thermal storage of energy.
Mechanical energy storage technologies to store energy during off-peak periods or high-wind speeds have also been patented such as flywheel energy storage that entails the acceleration of a rotor or flywheel to a high speed.
The flywheel then releases its kinetic energy through a dynamo to create electricity.
However, the area that received the most attention is green hydrogen, which involves the production of hydrogen through the use of electrolysers powered by renewable energy with zero emissions.
Increased connectivity, as well as the use of communication, medical and computer technology and smart devices, have enabled health services to move beyond hospitals and clinics to people’s homes.
Telemedicine and teleconsultations have become part of daily life. Increasingly, virtual health assistants are more and more integrated into medical devices and applications.
Among the patent registrations were several remote care platforms that connect to wristwatches with sensors to monitor the person’s heart rate, breathing, skin temperature, as well as blood sugar, pressure and oxygen saturation in real-time.
The constant increase in computer processing capacity and the miniaturisation of electronics enhanced the ability to process more data and run advanced diagnostics, as well as breakthroughs in drug discovery and development, robotics and therapy-related inventions.
Artificial intelligence (AI)
The latest developments in smart health have seen a significant increase in patents relating to AI, in particular in diagnostic technologies, medical simulation, digital surgery, medical imaging, smart devices and new therapies.
Medical practitioners are supplemented by AI-driven image recognition and deep learning capabilities in multiple fields such as radiology, dermatology and ophthalmology.
AI is excellent in pattern recognition and thus improves the accuracy of cancer diagnosis.
Ultrasound probes have been patented that can be plugged into a smartphone. These probes come at a fraction of the cost of larger conventional machines, are more versatile and can be used anywhere.
MRI is one of the world’s most widely used diagnostic tools. AI in camera-based sensing technology is used to correctly position a patient for an MRI scan and can even enable the machine to monitor the rhythm of a patient’s breathing.
AI patents have also been registered to support people with chronic illnesses in their daily routines by monitoring their behaviour and reminding them to take their medicine.
Patents and innovation
By providing legal protection, promoting knowledge sharing and attracting investment, patents can create an environment that fosters innovation and eventually economic growth.
From the European patent registrations it is clear that innovation in the world is led by countries such as the US, Germany, Japan and China. From an innovation perspective it is, unfortunately, extremely disquieting that South Africa only managed to register three patents in Europe in 2022.
Professor Louis Fourie is Extraordinary Professor in Information Systems, University of the Western Cape.