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I have been invited to take part in a new aircraft project. It is for a purpose built VTOL (maybe eVTOL) medevac type vehicle. It is an interesting idea and I think we can come up with a configuration that is better at meeting the needs of the mission than the currently available fixed and rotary wing assets.
It is an interesting design challenge. We are not quite ready to go public yet but we will give some details through the project website in the near future.
A few years ago one of my other clients asked me if it would be possible to create an ‘open source’ aircraft project. In that case we discussed it and that project decided to continue with their development program in the traditional protected way.
On the face of it an open source aircraft project sounds a little absurd. Aircraft projects are expensive endeavors, why would you choose to give the technology away as you develop it?
Well, there are some good arguments. If any of you have looked into patents, how they are filed, who files them and what they are used for, you will be aware of the general misuse or at worst abuse of the patent system.
Large companies file many patents in the attempt to claim ownership of absolutely anything they think of. These patents, rather than protecting true innovation, are used as a way of claiming proprietary ownership of anything at all and gives the large companies the ability to pursue and seek recompense against anyone who innovates anything similar.
Large companies are able to do this because they can afford the filing fee for each patent. A patent generally costs between $20,000 and $50,000 to file.
Looking at Boeing’s patent activity: https://www.statista.com/statistics/632961/boeing-patents-usa-registered/
Assuming that each patent costs and average of $30,000 to file, in 2020 Boeing spent 1464 x 30,000 = $43,920,000 on filing activity related to patents awarded in 2020.
Of course no small company can compete with the level of intellectual property protection that Boeing creates. It is also clear that the number of patents Boeing is filing is increasing significantly over time. Does the number of patents represent the level of unique innovation at Boeing or does it represent misuse of the system in order to give the ability to sue, claim ownership of and harm potential competition?
Let’s look at some of the things Boeing had patents awarded for in 2021.
Minor design details: Splice fittings that are affixed to stringers via web-installed fasteners
Something you might put in a warehouse management spreadsheet without thinking: Inventory management
Using a drill: Method and apparatus for drilling a workpiece
A wing spar: Monolithic spar for a wing
This is perfectly legal use of the patent system to maximise the potential for future lawsuits against ‘innocent’ innovations or even claim ownership of standard practice in other companies.
I believe it is also the sign of a corporation that has lost its way and sees anti-competitive mis use of the patent system as a source of future parasitic revenue generation.
Patents are also used to form what I call a ‘patent cloud’ around new aircraft companies. The patents in this instance are filed to perform a number of functions. These are given in order of actual utility:
- To create the impression of a high level of unique and valuable intellectual property to impress potential investors
- To create the appearance of a large amount protected proprietary information, where there actually is minimal innovation, to discourage anyone copying any aspect of your design
- To protect actual unique ideas and real innovation
Somewhere in between the misuse of the patent system between large corporations and self aggrandizing startups there is the use of the patents to protect unique and useful ideas that deserve protection.
In any case there are several truisms that are often applied to patents, these are
A patent is just an invitation to a lawsuit.
If you can’t afford to enforce a patent there is no point filing one.
With all of the previous points in mind and considering the expense and effort that a startup company ends up sinking into intellectual property protection; is there a viable alternative?
- What would happen if you did not protect your technology?
- What would happen if you made your technology freely available to all without protection?
I have been thinking about this for a few weeks and I keep on coming to the conclusion “not much”
Most people don’t realize that the R&D component of an aircraft startup company is not the majority component of your overall cost for a well run program. You have all of the company systems to develop, you have a manufacturing facility and plant to stand up, you have management, engineering and manufacturing staff to recruit and train and you have a huge amount of working capital to cover raw materials and vendor items for aircraft in manufacturing and for warehoused items before you get to revenue.
If you were to start an aircraft development program and do it completely openly and publicly would people copy your design and try to get to market to compete with you?
The answer to that question is “probably not”. The amount of capital needed to be invested, even if you sidestep some part of the R&D costs through the use of publicly available technology, is very large. Is it likely that a competitor would risk that amount of capital on an unproven idea that is not their own?
I believe there are several aspects that mean this is very unlikely.
- Unproven designs are risky. It is very likely that any competitor will wait for you (the original OEM) to get to market first and let you fully mitigate the technological, regulatory and market risks before they commit that level of investment.
- As anyone else can also compete with any potential competitor there is a strong disincentive to make the level of investment as the risk of facing additional competition is high.
It appears that an open source, or a complete public domain approach can offer a significant disincentive to competition.
What are the advantages?
- Avoidance of the costs of filing and defending patents
- Increased public attention and PR value of being the first to do take this approach
- A level of community involvement in development, checking and scrutinizing of design concepts
What if you went further and made all of the company’s operational systems also public domain? This could include:
- Engineering systems – document numbering, change and release control, configuration control
- Certification and compliance systems
- Quality system
- Manufacturing process specifications
- Work orders, warehousing, scheduling
- Human resource policies
In my experience every aircraft startup company has to develop all of these systems. They are all regarded as proprietary by each company and as such they are all guarded and kept confidential. And, in my experience, they are all very similar.
These systems are so similar that almost all aircraft companies could adopt a single standard for these systems as a baseline and make small modifications in house to meet their own specific needs.
I think this approach would be very interesting and be both disruptive and very beneficial for the whole industry – especially for startup companies. Would it democratize the aircraft development process?
What do you think?