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Lessons Drones Must Learn from Smartphones

The smartphone industry has reached a stage of denouement. It has evolved from a phase of unprecedented growth, high stakes patent litigation and finally reached a stage of maturity of cross licensing and patent pooling. The industry is now set to co-exist with the emerging technology of drones that has begun a journey similar to that of smartphones.

From celebrations to security management, drones have been deployed to capture moving and still imagery, allowing smartphones to rest and depend on their extended flying arm. These flying machines were first said to be deployed by the US army in 1940 for defense during World War II. Since then it has grown leaps and bounds, especially in the last few years, with industry majors such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Intel announcing major plans to deploy drone technology.

In response to market bigwigs announcing their interest in this space, new entrants such as DJI, 3DR, Precision Hawk, Yuneec and Airware are making it big. The $172 million investment made in drone tech R&D in 2015 speaks volumes of the interest this technology is garnering across industries.

Will drones relive the smartphone days?

In 1994, IBM launched the IBM Simon which was the first smartphone to feature software applications. Immediately after, the WAP browser was introduced in 1999. Camera phones became reality in 2000. This was followed by the introduction a variety of operating systems such as Symbian OS in 2001, Windows OS in 2002, Linux in 2003, iOS in 2007 and Android in 2008. This period marked the prominent entry of players from China, India and Korea.

The era started with bulky handsets until Apple came up with a sophisticated looking phone that revolutionized aesthetics in the smartphone industry. Now, this was a time when mobile handset makers refused to license Microsoft Windows as a single, common software standard, unlike its predecessor – the PC era. The revolution in handset aesthetics coupled with Windows OS losing its monopoly-like stand in OS technology gave way to a multitude of players. Apple introduced its home grown iOS; Google entered the fray by purchasing Android and providing it on the open source platform, capturing about 80% of the global market space. When these two giants started creating a polarized market, in came Huawei, Lenovo, Xiaomi, Micromax and their ilk to offer unprecedented competition, creating a fragmented market and a range of products for consumers.

Now drones are not really a new concept. Like smartphones, they were conceived nearly a century ago with prototypes put into action. After America’s use of drones in the World War II, Israel is said to have deployed them in 1982 against Syria and America reused a developed version called the MQ-1 Predator UAV in 1995.

It was, however, in 2010 that France-based Parrot SA decided to combine drones with smartphones and created a smartphone-controlled quadcopter. In 2013, DJI’s Phantom drone was released with a feature that could help a user remotely control the camera mounted on it from the smartphone. In a more recent instance, X Craft created a device that can turn a smartphone into a drone!

In 2012, the American Congress took cognizance of the growing market for drones and instructed the FAA to integrate small drones into the national airspace by 2015. The following year, Jeff Bezos of Amazon unveiled an ambitious plan to deliver products using drones and announced an investment of $2 million to develop drone technology. This set a trend with the drone industry witnessing high-end investments and transactions for R&D. Google acquired Skybox Imaging for $500 million, Intel announced an investment of about $60 million in Shanghai-based Yuneec International, DJI received an investment of $75 million from Accel, GE invested $40 million in Airware… and this is just the beginning.

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After a stage of confusion and chaos on drones flying in the sky, under visual line of sight of operators and the industry’s efforts to soften the stringent rules, the 2016 FAA regulations are more relaxed providing a boost to drone technology.

Drones are powering the upcoming IoT era

The 2016 amended FAA regulations require drone technologists to enhance R&D in IoT, autonomous flight control algorithms (autonomous navigation, obstacle avoidance, waypoint to waypoint navigation, landing zone determination, stabilized hovering, and sensor-aided dead reckoning), and operating systems among others. There is much emphasis on developing safety of drones too. These include safe landing, collision avoidance systems and lost link management. Single-board technologies that allow for flight control and machine learning in real time onboard a drone is also expected to witness heavy R&D.

While these are in the line of development, parallel technologies including software platforms such as image processing software, data gathering, processing and analyzing, cloud based software, auto-pilot software, etc. are set to attract attention of technologists. Drones are also expected to interact in real time through advanced ecosystems with vehicles, other drones and robots—all linked via wireless networks.

Internet of Things (IoT) has a primary neural system that connects physical devices and enables them to share feedback through established communication networks. Using IoT, UAV operators can control drones flying across the world, monitoring them in real time from control centres. IoT enables interconnection of as many devices as needed, controlling and monitoring multiple UAVs from multiple control stations simultaneously.

Patient Owners Bar Graph

Leading patent portfolio owners in drone technology
Source: UnitedLex analysis based on patent data from 2014 to 2016

Patent Filing Trend

Patent filing trend in drone technology
Source: UnitedLex analysis based on patent data from 2014 to 2016

Drones & their patent wars

Over 3,000 litigation have been filed and contested in the last decade alone in drone technology. The earliest case can be traced to July 2002 when Research In Motion (RIM) filed a complaint against Good Technology. RIM alleged that Good Technology infringed a portion of its copyright portfolio associated with user interface on RIM’s line of BlackBerry wireless handsets. In 2003, Cisco sued Huawei over unlawful copying of its IP related to Cisco’s IOS software. In 2005, Qualcomm filed a patent lawsuit against Nokia for infringing its GSM-based IP. The smartphones set off on a serious note in 2009 after Nokia accused Apple of infringing its patents. However, since 2012, the smartphone industry entered a phase of maturity with litigation activities subsiding. This gave way to more licensing, patent pooling and cross-licensing deals that created a win-win situation for the parties involved.

Similar to the early days of smartphones, the drone industry has begun witnessing patent litigation in the early stage of its lifecycle. The key litigation in this space include:

  • Drone Technologies Inc. v Parrot Inc. – In May 2015, a federal judge awarded $7.8 million to Drone Technologies’ in a patent infringement dispute involving applications that enable piloting of small drones from tablets or smartphones. This amount was a break-up of $3.78 million for past damages casued by prrot Inc’s infringement and $4 million for future damages stemming from Parrot’s appropriation of Drone Technologies’ remote-control drone technology.
  • DJI v. Yuneec - In early 2016, leading consumer drone manufacturer DJI filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Yuneec involving its patents US9164506 and US9280038. While the case is underway, DJI has requested the court for injunctive relief to halt further sale of the Yuneec products and systems that are allegedly infringing its patents.
  • FAA v. SkyPan - In January 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) settled a lawsuit with SkyPan for damages worth $200,000. FAA had alleged that SkyPan used drones to snap aerial cityscape photos from 2012 through 2014 without government approval.

Can drones learn from the smartphone wars?

If recent industry reports are to be believed, venture capitalists and start-up funders are moving away from the e-commerce industry and are scouting for ventures in drone technology. With billions of dollars making their way into developing drones, the industry seems to be treading a growth path similar to smartphones. However, it is important that drone technology players assess their IP development to ensure they do not spend time in courtrooms.

For one, drone technologists need to focus on building strong intellectual property. The smartphone wars had one strong contender in Nokia. While the company fell back in its market share, it leveraged the strong IP in its portfolio to earn revenue. Such foresight and focus to build a strong and vast patent portfolio can pay off in the long run.

Drone developers such as DJI, Unmanned Innovation Inc. (Airware), Parrot Inc., Aerovironment, INSITU and Skycatch have already made their presence felt in the drone IP space, especially in the last one year. DJI has been a force to reckon with. It has over 100 patent publications to its credit. These new entrants are giving industry bigwigs such as Facebook, Honeywell, Intel, Siemens, LG Electronics, Qualcomm, Amazon, Verizon, IBM and others a tough competition. It is important that they focus on developing stronger and futuristic technologies with patent protection. They also need to engage in active licensing and cross licensing deals to enjoy an upper hand in revenue generation through innovation.

Identifying complementary spaces and developing drone technologies in those areas can boost a company’s leadership position. In 1983, Steve Jobs had predicted an era of a software distribution centre. Today, we live by that centre that we popularly call Mobile Apps. A foresight into developing complementary ideas can help players in the drone industry stay afloat even amid tough competition.

Qualcomm for one has forayed into the complementary technology space through the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight. This supports a broad range of drone applications, including snapping aerial photographs and recording live events such as sports and ceremonies.

Drones are the next step towards a more aerial tech world and there’s much left to be explored. From providing insights about space to filming the remotest parts of Earth, drones are the flying eyes for mankind. And while they are set to enter into an integral relationship with smartphones, it is important that drone manufacturers avoid repeating mistakes that led to the massive smartphone wars, and instead focus on developing an innovation ecosystem that can thrive and flourish in health.