Article by AA Thornton intellectual Property Law
Manufacturers routinely obtain patent protection for different aspects of familiar everyday products. Smartphone companies and carmakers, for example, might each file hundreds, if not thousands, of patent applications annually. However, patents are also used to protect innovations in much more specialist fields, including space travel.
Patents protect technical innovations that are new and non-obvious, by granting the patent holder exclusive rights to the invention for a set period, usually 20 years, in exchange for disclosing details of how the invention works. Patents can be used in many ways, from preventing competitors using an invention or deterring companies from entering a market, to generating licensing revenues or attracting investment for a start-up company.
Definitely not an everyday consumer product, the iconic A7L space suit developed for the Apollo space program was one of many inventions patented by NASA. Although the patent for the A7L expired in 1990, inventors continue to seek patent protection for developments in space suit technology. In fact, “space suits” even have their own section in the international patent classification system, used by patent office examiners worldwide to categorise inventions for the purpose of novelty searching.
A look through this classification reveals patent applications for technical innovations relating to many different aspects of space suits from the 1960s to the present day. These include developments in joints, seals and dust protection, as well as temperature control systems and mechanisms for providing resistance to facilitate exercise in a weightless environment.
A US patent application filed in 2020 seeks to protect a method of 3D-printing space suit components, while an international patent application from the same year relates to a self-healing space suit made from materials able to repair themselves in response to punctures caused by impacts from orbital debris.
More forward-looking is a 2017 Russian patent application, which describes a space suit intended for a crewed mission to Mars, and includes a system for reducing the effort required by the wearer’s leg muscles when walking on the planet’s surface, to compensate for the length of the flight under conditions of weightlessness.
One of the most intriguing inventions is set out in US patent no. 10,882,642, which describes a bodysuit for use as part of a system for producing artificial gravity in a weightless environment. The bodysuit is provided with electromagnets and motion sensors, and is designed for use in a corridor provided with fixed electromagnets in the floor and ceiling to provide a uniform magnetic field. A computer controls the suit’s electromagnets to produce a force that simulates the weight of different parts of the wearer’s body as they move, depending on the position and movement of the sensors.
It is clear that even in this very specialised area, there is a continuous development of innovative solutions to a wide range of technical challenges, and that companies developing these solutions recognise the value of patents in protecting their work.