Patent applications for smart object technologies, on which the Fourth Industrial Revolution depends, are rising rapidly, according to a new study.

More than 5,000 “Internet of Things” (IoT) patent applications were filed in 2016 at the European Patent Office (EPO). This marks a growth rate of 54% over the last three years. Compared to the 8% growth rate for all patent applications, IoT technologies are rapidly attracting inventors.

Smart objects are equipped with sensors, processors and software, enabling them to collect data and operate autonomously. When combined with technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing, they can automate entire business processes.

Manufacturing, agriculture, health, transport and many more sectors are already being transformed. Between 26 and 30 billion smart objects are anticipated in our homes and workplaces by 2025.

There are three categories of smart object technology.

First is the core technology that builds the objects, including the hardware, software and connectivity parts. Second are enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), user interfaces, analytics and security that mean the core technology can be applied in a home or workplace. Third are technologies specific to the domain where the particular smart object is used, such as the vehicle, the enterprise or the home.

Patent data: an early indicator of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Patents are exclusive rights granted to new inventions. They can help attract investment and licensing. In exchange for granting an inventor exclusive rights, the EPO publishes successful patent applications, revealing the technical details of each new technology.

The EPO analysed every patent application relating to smart objects that they have ever received - 48,000 in total - for their study “Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)”, in cooperation with Handelsblatt Research Institute.

From the mid-1990s, IoT patent applications began to rise steeply. Core technologies and domain applications have attracted the majority of patent filings so far. Personal and enterprise applications and connectivity are the most popular areas.

However, enabling technologies are the fastest-growing area of patents, including 3D systems, power supplies and AI.

The USA, Europe and Japan have been the greatest innovators. Applications from South Korea and China have been rising in recent years, mostly concentrated from a few ICT companies.

Between 2011 and 2016, 42% of patent applications came from just 20 companies, most of them in Asia.

Core technology innovation is mainly led by a small number of large ICT companies. However, enabling technologies and application domain inventions patents come from a wider variety of industries.

In Europe, Germany and France are the biggest Fourth Industrial Revolution innovators. Germany stands out in the application domains of vehicles, infrastructure and manufacturing, while France leads in enabling technologies. The greater Paris area (Île de France) and the greater Munich area (Oberbayern) are the leading European locations in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies.

The UK, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands "also show inventive activity".

“During the last World Economic Forum in Davos, a particular focus was put on mapping trends in artificial intelligence technologies", said EPO President Benoît Battistelli.

"In this regard, patent information is helping us obtain a better understanding of a subject that is currently capturing the imagination of business leaders, industry and the wider public."