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Digitization Themes in IP and Aerospace

Issued: May 31 2018

“We live or die by our IP,” says Alistair Scott, vice president intellectual property for Airbus Group. “We sell aircraft that compete with our main competitor on the basis of technology leadership, and we use IP to protect that.” And with more than 23,000 flights by Airbus aircraft daily, and an Airbus plane taking off every two seconds, sell aircraft they certainly do.


“Ultimately we sell your comfort,” explained Scott, who was speaking at the recent ASEAN Intellectual Property Association Meeting and Conference in Phnom Penh. Passengers board an aircraft, watch a movie and fall asleep, and forget about the technological processes needed to get someone to their destination, he said. “We sell life support systems that get people from Point A to Point B.”


As a manufacturer, Airbus could be viewed as a very old fashioned industry, but the technology incorporated into every plane is understandably very broad. Scott went on to list technology such as aircraft architecture, flight physics, hydraulics, communications, electronics and networked systems, among many, as key technologies underpinning an aircraft’s manufacture.


And supporting this technology is intellectual property. “The technologies in our portfolio are incredibly broad. On the surface it’s a structure that is aerodynamic, but almost any technology you can think of goes into an aircraft,” explained Scott.


Taking the Airbus A350 as an example, Scott explained that the plane was designed using software, the aerodynamics were designed using software, and it was tested using software. Technology and intellectual property are totally integrated throughout the aircraft, Scott went on to say, from flight physics, hydraulics, telemetry and controls systems, and acoustics, with the knowhow, drawings, designs, logos and specifications protected as patents, registered designs, trademarks, copyrights or trade secrets.



Digitization: Threat or Opportunity?


Digitization has presented a number of challenges and opportunities for companies like Airbus, Scott explained, highlighting four elements: computing power, data storage, fast networks and software utilization. Computing power and data storage, in particular, are very important, and are now comparatively very cheap, he said. “These four elements of digitization take us from a hardware manufacturing industry that makes products, to something that makes products, services and compliant products using advances in digitization.”


Digitalization themes in IP and aerospace include cloud storage, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, learning algorithms, data mining, digital design and manufacturing, the internet of things, personal data and blockchain.


Each of these themes presents unique threats and benefits, he said.



The Benefits


Scott sees clear benefits ahead from digitization. Airbus, for example, is looking at technology which will allow artificial intelligence to support single pilots, which will help reduce cockpit crews and therefore cost. The company is also developing AI in assisted air traffic management, and developing software that will that will allow large aircraft to follow each other in formation flight, which can save up to 17 percent of fuel.


Every day a huge amount of data is generated through flights using Airbus aircraft, and this data is invaluable, Scott explained. Airbus use this data to model the aircraft’s performance, and performance with regard to maintenance, which is valuable for its customers.


The more exotic things such as blockchain, the internet of things, and digital design and manufacturing are helping Airbus transition from a hardware and industrial company into a more software- and new technologydriven organization. Blockchain can be used for component authentication to ensure that every component is certified safe to fly, and Airbus is looking at using the internet of things on the logistics side, highlighting the fact that aircraft parts are manufactured in six countries, and the internet of things can help track them to their final destination for assembly; Digital design and manufacturing techniques allow the aircraft to be created in a 3D virtual space, with a level of detail not available on paper.



The Threats


But what about the threats? “In an IP sense, we compete very aggressively against our main competitor,” said Scott. “We both make good aircraft. We differentiate ourselves on the level of our technology.”


Those things that present benefits can also present threats, Scott said. Napoleon Bonaparte said that war is 90 percent information. Airbus data mines publically-available data to find out what their competitors are doing, and to take educated guesses about R&D priorities. Other companies likely do exactly the same towards Airbus.


Cloud computing means everyone is putting data in the cloud, which in itself can create risks. For many companies, it matters where their data is stored. The extraterritorial reach of the cloud may cause issues related to export controls, and adds a new layer of complexity to data storage. 

And with blockchain, a company must understand who is – or whether there is – the trusted central authority in such a decentralized rights system. “What problem is blockchain trying to solve in IP? We see it as an opportunity, but we are not 100 percent sure how broadly it can be used.”

Open innovation, crowd sourcing and collaborative networks are fundamentally changing how companies operate. Ultimately, Scott said, it is possible that digitization could even make IP obsolete.


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