The power industry continues to be a hotbed of innovation, with activity driven by the growing need for carbon emission reductions in the aviation industry, improved flight range compared to conventional aircrafts, the potential for high altitude and long endurance missions, and growing importance of technologies such as organic photovoltaics and quantum dots. In the last three years alone, there have been over 439,000 patents filed and granted in the power industry, according to GlobalData’s report on Environment Sustainability in Power: Solar powered aircraft.

However, not all innovations are equal and nor do they follow a constant upward trend. Instead, their evolution takes the form of an S-shaped curve that reflects their typical lifecycle from early emergence to accelerating adoption, before finally stabilising and reaching maturity.

Identifying where a particular innovation is on this journey, especially those that are in the emerging and accelerating stages, is essential for understanding their current level of adoption and the likely future trajectory and impact they will have.

90+ innovations will shape the power industry

According to GlobalData’s Technology Foresights, which plots the S-curve for the power industry using innovation intensity models built on over 83,000 patents, there are 90+ innovation areas that will shape the future of the industry.

Within the emerging innovation stage, smart lighting system, PCM thermal energy storage, and solid electrolyte fuel cell membrane are disruptive technologies that are in the early stages of application and should be tracked closely. Ceramic oxide nuclear fuel, geothermal heat pumps, and hybrid PV plants are some of the accelerating innovation areas, where adoption has been steadily increasing. Among maturing innovation areas are combined cycle gas turbines and ethylene co-polymer PV modules, which are now well established in the industry. 

Innovation S-curve for environmental sustainability in the power industry

Solar powered aircraft is a key innovation area in environmental sustainability

A solar powered aircraft is one in which the energy required for propulsion is generated by covering a certain region of airplane with arrays of solar photovoltaic cells, mostly on the upper surface of wings and tail section.

GlobalData’s analysis also uncovers the companies at the forefront of each innovation area and assesses the potential reach and impact of their patenting activity across different applications and geographies.  According to GlobalData, there are 10+ companies, spanning technology vendors, established power companies, and up-and-coming start-ups engaged in the development and application of solar powered aircraft.

Key players in solar powered aircraft – a disruptive innovation in the power industry

‘Application diversity’ measures the number of different applications identified for each relevant patent and broadly splits companies into either ‘niche’ or ‘diversified’ innovators.

‘Geographic reach’ refers to the number of different countries each relevant patent is registered in and reflects the breadth of geographic application intended, ranging from ‘global’ to ‘local’.

Patent volumes related to solar powered aircraft

Company Total patents (2010 - 2021) Premium intelligence on the world's largest companies
Airbus 31 Unlock company profile
Boeing 27 Unlock company profile
SoftBank Group 15 Unlock company profile
Meditor European Master Fund 13 Unlock company profile
Sunlight Photonics 13 Unlock company profile
SolAero Technologies 11 Unlock company profile
Wing Aviation 11 Unlock company profile
MicroLink Devices 10 Unlock company profile
Alphabet 10 Unlock company profile
AeroVironment 8 Unlock company profile
Walmart 8 Unlock company profile
Lockheed Martin 6 Unlock company profile

Source: GlobalData Patent Analytics

Boeing is a leading global aerospace company which develops, manufacture and services commercial airplanes, defence products and space systems in more than 150 countries. It has a long tradition of aerospace leadership and innovation. In 2018, it introduced Odysseus, the world’s most capable solar powered autonomous aircraft, to collect climate related data, and patented the first solar powered plane that can fly forever.

Airbus is a global leader in designing, manufacturing, and delivering aerospace products, services, and solutions to customers across the world. Its flagship programme Zephyr under its zero-emission innovation segment is the world’s leading stratospheric unmanned aerial system (UAS) that is powered exclusively by solar power. Zephyr enables the capability of flying over 3000 hours continuously in the stratosphere. This solar powered high-altitude platform station is a technological breakthrough to deliver future wireless broadband connectivity.

Sunlight Photonics, a pioneer in Sunlink® technology and Sunfleet® technology, was formed in 2007 by a team of former Lockheed and Bell Labs engineers and scientists. It develops autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles and systems for wireless communication and next generation IoT communication. It has consistently pursued patents and currently holds 57 US patents with two active applications and 15 international patents with 16 active international applications.

To further understand the key themes and technologies disrupting the power industry, access GlobalData’s latest thematic research report on Power.


GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article.

GlobalData’s Patent Analytics tracks patent filings and grants from official offices around the world. Textual analysis and official patent classifications are used to group patents into key thematic areas and link them to specific companies across the world’s largest industries.