Seeing the earth from space: spaceborne remote sensing with “green” purposes and implications in the patent field

Spaceborne remote sensing is a unique resource for monitoring Earth’s global atmosphere and surface. The data gathered via remote sensing can be used for various purposes, with sustainability being one of the areas benefiting the most from this technology. Patent activity is one of the indicators showing that we are before a very rapidly growing scientific area.

Earth observation refers to the process of gathering information about the planet and its environment through the use of remote sensing devices. These devices can be mounted on different platforms, such as aircraft or satellites, and can be used in various sectors, such as agriculture, defence, meteorology, geology, sustainability, and urban planning. The data collected is very useful for supporting the adoption of policies in these sectors, as well as scientific research in various related fields.

Amongst the many advantages of observing the Earth from space, and particularly of doing so with increasingly advanced systems and technical means, one may highlight the ability to analyse a wide portion of territory in a short period of time and to repeatedly or frequently analyse a specific area of interest, without geographical barriers, as well as the possibility of using multiple sensors operating in different regions of the electromagnetic spectrum and quantitatively analysing terrestrial features, for example by measuring the amounts of radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface.

But what does spaceborne remote sensing consist of and what is it used for more specifically?

NASA briefly defines remote sensing as “the acquiring of information from a distance”. In simple terms, spaceborne remote sensing consists of placing sensors on aircraft or satellites orbiting around the Earth in order to capture images of elements of geographical space, such as natural phenomena or certain objects or areas, for research or practical purposes. The main usefulness of spaceborne remote sensing revolves around the acquisition of data and the provision of related services. Of particular note is the collective benefit that results from sharing these data (for instance, in the field of meteorology) and from the technological development related to data extraction, processing and interpretation.

In the last 20 years, nearly 1,500 satellites for remote sensing have been launched, a number which is ever increasing due to the trend to continually minimise the size of the devices used, thus reducing costs and making it easier to launch satellites in larger constellations.  

There are many advantages to using these tools for public and commercial interest purposes, especially if we consider the advancement of the data acquisition and processing technologies used (of particular note is the entry of private playersintothe sector, historically dominated by government agencies, which has increased the diversity and quality of the available means) and better cost efficiency, considering the comparative cost of performing the same analysis, or an analysis of the same area, using other methods.

Sustainability is one of the areas where the use of remote sensing and of the data thus obtained can play a particularly important role, as such data can help – rectius, already helps – to analyse and mitigate the effects of climate change (e.g., by measuring the extent of glaciers), make more accurate meteorological analyses, determine atmospheric pollution levels, monitor the quality of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, detect illicit activities (e.g., illegal deforestation) and protect biodiversity (using satellite images to understand the impact of human activities on ecosystems and the lives of the species that inhabit them). Remote sensing technologies would therefore appear to be extremely important tools for achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically those related to eliminating hunger (2) (e.g., by increasing agricultural productivity), clean water and sanitation (6), affordable and clean energy (7), sustainable cities and communities (11), responsible production and consumption (12), climate action (13), protecting life below water (14) and life on land (15). This is naturally linked to the potential of these technologies to provide images, statistics and other crucial data, obtained without border restrictions, for the informed implementation of policies on these issues. The various state and supranational public initiatives in the field, including the Copernicus programme, co-funded by the European Union and the European Space Agency (ESA), the series of ESA scientific missions called Earth Explorers, the Landsat programme jointly established by the United States Geological Survey and NASA (a pioneer in the field, launched in 1972), or the National Space Mission for Earth Observation (NSMEO) launched by Australia in 2022, are therefore not surprising. Nor is it surprising to see the strong commercial interest generated by the technology and reflected in the growing number of companies involved in the expansion of the sector, which is expected to continue to grow over the next decade, as well as in the increased estimates of the value of the spaceborne remote sensing market, which already amounts to billions of euros, with particular relevance in the defence, living resources management, and energy and natural resources sectors.   

As mentioned, the collection, storage, processing, and interpretation of large volumes of data, obtained through sensors whose performance is based on and varies according to different spectral ranges of electromagnetic radiation and gravitational forces, is at the heart of how spaceborne remote sensing works. The technological challenges are therefore huge, including issues such as: (i) the design and definition of the operational features of the satellite to be used, taking into account what it is expected to achieve during its time in orbit, (ii) procedures for manufacturing, testing and launching satellites, (iii) means of obtaining and transmitting data to terrestrial infrastructures, (iv) processing and analysing data, with a view to making them useful for the intended purposes, and also (v) the terms of the final applications – of a public or private nature – of the information obtained. Naturally, the above tasks are not all carried out by the same organisations, with different stakeholdersand fields of knowledge intervening in the different stages of this value chain.

These challenges require constant technological development, in particular according to the specifics of each mission, satellite, etc., with some of the key areas of research being signal processing methods, artificial intelligence systems to aid the data analysis process, the improved performance of the equipment used (e.g., in terms of the precision of radiometric and spectral measurements and the quality of resolution and contrast when using optical detectors), and the miniaturisation of instruments and platforms.

In the various fields of technology, statistics on patent filing are useful for analysing and measuring trends in innovation, the commercial exploitation of scientific developments and knowledge transfer, and are therefore also useful for policymakers, researchers, innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs. According to a 2022 report by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), in collaboration with ESA (available at Space-borne sensing and green applications – Patent insight report), the number of patent applications related to “green” uses of remote space sensing increased by around 1800% between 2001 and 2020, an impressive figure when compared to the average increase in patent applications in all technological fields during the same period (around 400%). In view of that discussed above, it is likely that this trend of linear and accelerated growth in patent activity related to remote sensing, typical of rapidly developing technological areas, will continue in the coming years. In terms of the geography of applicants, China and the United States stand out among the countries where this trend originated. A 2021 report by the same organisations referred above had already showed an increase of more than 400% between 2015 and 2020 in the number of patent applications related to quantum technology applications in the space context – a trend also led by China and the United States. This is, of course, related to the fact that both countries have very ambitious space programmes and significant public investment in the sector.

Most of the patent applications in question relate to methods of transmitting and processing information, more specifically, the software for processing the signals captured by satellites, and are aimed at inventions to be applied in areas as diverse as agricultural crop productivity, the protection of rivers and coastal zones, and meteorology. In very general terms, this is the field of downstream processes, centred on transforming raw datainto usable information. The fact that most of the inventions linked to the application of these technologies for environmental purposes are software related is not surprising – “green” uses are more likely to emerge in the field of data processing and analysis than in inventions related to hardware (optical elements, antennas, etc.), which can usually be put to many different uses. In fact, there has also been an increase in the number of patents in the field of hardware, i.e., thedevices involved, such as: (i) synthetic aperture radar(SAR) instruments, a form of radar mounted on satellites and used to create images with a more precise resolution than conventional radars, one of its advantages being that it can observe in cloudy conditions and at night, and (ii) optical sensors, which make it possible to form images of the Earth’s surface by detecting solar radiation reflected from ground targets. The two realities – hardware and software – are not easily distinguishable in this context, since the design of a space observation device (e.g., satellite) and the requirements for its operation (e.g., in terms of the resolution of the images obtained) are conditioned by data acquisition and transmission needs.

As regards “green” uses of this technology, and as follows from that said above, we are, in patent language, in the domain of computer-implemented inventions, i.e., in sum, inventions whose implementation involves the use of a computer, computer network, or any other programmable device, and which have one or more features realised through a computer programme (software per se, as aprogramme devoid of technical context, is excluded from patentability in most jurisdictions, being protected by copyright as a concrete and original expression of a given idea). Computer programmes, in turn, implement algorithms, which are understood as sets of ordered steps to solve a problem or provide an output from a given input.

The patentability of these inventions in Europe (practice varies between jurisdictions, with the same requirements not being applied by the EPO and offices such as the USPTO, in the USA) depends, among other things, on the existence and demonstration of a technical contribution of an inventive nature. This means that the object for which patent protection is sought must be a teaching, i.e., a set of instructions addressed to an expert in the technological field in question, who must be able to solve a certain technical problem using those instructions (e.g., the steps of a process implemented through software, with a view to achieving a certain objective, such as faster data transmission). The technical nature of the problem to be solved by the invention must be emphasised – solving a purely commercial problem, such as reducing costs, will in principle not generate a patentable invention. It should also be noted that under EPO practice, making the source code available is not a requirement for the sufficiency of disclosure of computer-implemented inventions (i.e., for the invention to be considered described in a sufficiently clear and detailed manner that allows for implementation by an expert). However, patent claims shall define all the features which are essential for obtaining the technical effect of the process which the computer programme is intended to carry out when it is run. In conclusion, it is clear that we are dealing with a rapidly expanding technological field, and it is hoped that continued public investment, along with a growing commercial and business dynamic around spaceborne remote sensing and, above all, the data obtained by these means, will lead to continued innovation in this context

The Insights published herein reproduce the work carried out for this purpose by the author and therefore maintain the original language in which they were written. The opinions expressed within the article are solely the author’s and do not reflect in any way the opinions and beliefs of WhatNext.Law or of its affiliates. See our Terms of Use for more information.

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