Closing out our year of reporting on innovations from all over the world, our Top 10 Patents of 2014 list picks up where we left off with our survey of the best patent applications published this past year. Today, we’re picking the best inventions for which corporations from the Companies We Follow series have actually earned patent rights from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Alternative energies, drones, robots, seawater desalination and the Internet of Things all make an appearance in today’s profile of the best inventions from the past year.
It’s been a great 12 months for profiling innovations that are being filed with the USPTO. Having opened up our Companies We Profile series to include some of the stalwarts of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, including DuPont and Caterpillar, has dramatically increased the scope of what we’ll be covering for our readers in the months to come. We here at IPWatchdog hope that you enjoy this countdown of the top patents of the past year and visit our website many times this year to learn all about the amazing technological progress being pursued by major corporations from all over the world.
#10: Seawater Desalination System
Access to fresh water has been a major and growing concern in our world as the human population increases and freshwater resources dwindle. 2015 marks the end of the Water For Life campaign established by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). This International Decade of Action UNDESA campaign sought to highlight the fact that 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, with another 1.6 billion people residing in areas of economic water shortage where the physical infrastructure for delivering fresh water doesn’t exist.
Strange to think that here, on a planet where approximately two-thirds of the surface is covered by water, that we’d have issues capitalizing on those resources to provide people the resources they need to survive. However, by July 2008, the world was using desalinated seawater to take care of only half of one percent of human water consumption needs. One major obstacle in the way of utilizing seawater sources is that the desalination processes, which are necessary to remove salt and other contaminants for public consumption, require a lot of energy to break the strong chemical bonds formed between salt and water. This makes most desalination processes fairly expensive.
This invention, patented by Toshiba in September, may not have solved the energy consumption problems associated with desalination systems, but it does take some important steps forward. The seawater desalination system claimed by this patent is capable of stably supplying pretreated seawater for desalination without a control vessel, preventing the mixing of suspended solids which can deteriorate water quality. Without the control unit, a protect filter is not required, and without the protect filter, a water pump isn’t required. The resulting desalination system has a reduced cost of installation and less space requirements than previous systems while offering improved efficiency of operation.
#9: Recirculation Complex for Increasing Yield From Fuel Cell With CO2 Capture
With ethanol production from biomass already featured in our Top 10 Patent Applications of 2014, we wanted to take a look at another area of alternative energy generation which has earned some of our focus this year. Fuel cells are capable of generating electrical energy by reacting hydrogen fuel with the oxygen naturally present in the air; when used in stacks, these energy generators can be used to power vehicles or even power plants connected to electrical grids. Back in August, we had covered a webinar presented by the U.S. Department of Energy on advances in hydrogen-based fuel cell technologies with a September follow-up piece about recently patented technologies in the field.
The most intriguing fuel cell technology we were able to find from the Companies We Follow series was this one, issued in July to General Electric. It protects a fuel cell recirculation complex that increases the fuel utilization rates of solid-oxide fuel cells while separating carbon dioxide from the fuel stream, either sequestering the CO2 or bringing it to a turbine to generate more electric power. This innovation helps to support the long service life of fuel cells by preventing carbon deposits from building up within a fuel cell; this buildup causes poor heat and mass transfers and can damage internal components of the fuel cell.
#8: Devices and Methods for Transferring Data Through a Human Body
The best part about writing the Companies We Follow series is never being quite sure what you might find being developed by certain companies. We get to profile the products that are being created to bring commercial success for these companies in the future, often getting a very early look at some industry trends. For instance, we’ve been profiling some great recent developments in robotics from Samsung before most of those products have become widely used. And, as we’ve discussed many times, Johnson & Johnson’s patent filings have included a number of intriguing innovations in electronic contact lenses.
AT&T has long had a history of developing intriguing telecommunications systems and the secure data transmission methods of this patent, issued in December, are mind-bogglingly futuristic. The invention seeks to create a method for transferring data between devices in such a way that isn’t susceptible to eavesdropping devices like ultra-powerful directional antennas. It achieves this by transferring data through the bones of a human body by creating vibrations through the use of piezo-electric transducers, such as contact microphones. Interestingly, the patent application for this invention was selected as this writer’s top innovation for all of 2013.
#7: Virtual Universe Teleportation Suggestion Service
As was pointed out in the Top 10 Patent Applications of 2014, there have been some incredible trends in virtual reality and augmented reality technologies that we’ve noticed from many of the Companies We Follow. Currently, the signs point to 2015 being an even bigger year for these technologies. Next year’s Sundance Film Festival, for example, will host 13 films that incorporate virtual reality into the experience in some form. Some technology writers are predicting that 2015 is the year that Oculus Rift and other similar virtual reality technologies start to become sought after as consumer devices.
Virtual universes, which provide a graphical user interface and world through which a person can control an avatar which interacts with the environment and others, don’t involve the headset technology that most people think of as virtual reality. However, the growing use of these worlds as a forum for interaction that goes well beyond multiplayer gaming is a big reason why this IBM patent, issued in March, made this list. We cover IBM regularly, and we’ll have some IBM coverage coming out soon that discusses other intriguing virtual universe technologies, especially those meant for business purposes, but this patent protects an innovation specifically designed to ensure that a user of a virtual universe finds the most interesting experiences available to them in massive online virtual universes. This invention incorporates the use of a suggestion generation service determining teleportation suggestions from analysis of a user’s inventory, teleportation history or social networks.
#6: Gamma Secretase Modulators
Alzheimer’s is an insidious disease and our society is becoming increasingly aware of its negative impacts as well as the growing number of people who fall prey to this condition. By 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association forecasts that 16 million people will be living with the disease and caring for them will cost $1.2 trillion per year. In recent years, a little bit has been discovered about the genetic predisposition of some individuals towards developing the disease, but there are still no effective treatments to stop or even slow the progression of the dementia-inducing condition.
This patent, issued to Merck in August, may represent our world’s best chance currently in the fight against Alzheimer’s. The pharmaceutical compound claimed by this patent specifically targets amyloid beta, a metabolite of amyloid precursor protein which is considered to be of great importance regarding the degeneration and loss of neurons in Alzheimer’s patients. Reductions in the production of amyloid beta and related proteins may allow this pharmaceutical product to be used effectively as a means of controlling the progress of Alzheimer’s or preventing it from developing in a patient in the first place.
#5: Foreign Currency Solution
As promised in our Top 10 Patent Applications of 2014, we wanted to include a patent that, while protecting a useful technology, points out one of the more hot-button issues developing in patent law over the past year. Many assumed that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alice Corporation v. CLS Bank International, in which a patent held by Alice was struck down for containing unpatentable subject matter relative to a computer-implemented method, would spell doom for software patents, especially for those protecting a computer-implemented method for business activities that are well known. But as this patent proves, that’s just not the case.
This patent was issued to the Bank of America in August, two months after SCOTUS’s decision in Alice, and protects a system meant to assist financial account holders with exchanging funds between currencies and making transactions in foreign currencies. The patent claims a mobile device and not a computer-implemented method, but there can be no mistake that this is exactly the type of financial patent struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court: it applies a financial system that has already been in place (here, the conversion of funds into foreign currencies; for Alice, the securing of a financial transaction by using a third party) to a computing platform. How this patent would fare under the scrutiny of court is anyone’s guess. Yet the Bank of America scores a major victory for itself with business travelers by being able to provide its customers with an easy tool for converting funds directly from their smartphone. It makes one wonder whether all the decision in Alice actually did was create the threat of a two-tiered patent system where major players (Google, Apple et. al.) are able to continue protecting software inventions while smaller inventors have the threat of patent invalidation looming squarely over their heads every time they try to enforce their patent rights.
#4: Aerial Display System With Marionettes Articulated and Supported by Airborne Devices
Once again, we found ourselves stymied by the amazing innovations coming out of the research and development activities of the Walt Disney Company. The entertainment media company has long been known for its Imagineers, a division of engineers who, as the team’s slogan goes, “make the magic.” The activities of Disney’s Imagineers are aided by Disney’s network of five research labs found across America from Burbank, CA, to Boston, MA, with an additional research lab found overseas in Zürich, Switzerland. These various facilities are involved with research into materials science, environmental science, social psychology, human-computer interaction and much more.
We only published our first survey of Disney for the Companies We Follow series just over a week ago and yet innovations from that corporation made it onto this list as well as our Top 10 Patent Applications of 2014; readers can be sure that we’ll be returning to Disney a couple of times in 2015. This invention involves the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, which lift and direct a series of articulated puppets to create a complex and exciting aerial display. The system is a vast improvement on conventional aerial displays which used flying characters that relied on hot air or gasses to fly, making it awkward to control articulated parts.
#3: Clustering Devices in an Internet of Things (‘IoT’)
The Internet of Things will bring us the future of interconnected devices that has long been hypothesized by science fiction. 2014 was a big year in the development of the IoT. Our January coverage of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show introduced us to the technological trend in the first weeks of this year. Over the past 12 months, at least four different networking standards for connecting devices within the home have been developed, signifying an incredible amount of activity in this sector. Along with home appliances, the growth of wearable tech has also encouraged development of the IoT as people desire more connectivity to their fitness trackers or other wearable gadgets.
The advances made this year in the IoT are a big reason why this IBM patent, issued in March, makes this list. The innovation is intended to provide a system through which the control of heterogeneous devices which may have common features but are located in different areas and have differing capabilities. This system automates the work of receiving a characteristic set for a device on a network and clustering devices based on attributes specified in the characteristic set. This allows a user to more easily control access and security restrictions for groups of devices which are connected to an IoT network.
#2: Anti-TSG101 Antibodies and Their Uses for Treatment of Viral Infections
Returning to the subject of insidious diseases, 2014 will be remembered as the year that Ebola reared its ugly head and caused panics all over the world while continuing to cause a great deal of strife in West Africa. As of this writing, official reports have concluded that 20,000 people have caught this hemorrhagic fever, most of them from the region of West Africa, and 7,700 of those people have died because of the disease. There is probably no health crisis this year that so gripped the imaginations and fears of the world than Ebola.
This Eli Lilly patent, issued in August, protects a method of treating viral infections like Ebola and HIV through the use of an immunogen administered to a patient to induce the expression of antibodies to Tumor Susceptibility Gene 101 (TSG101). This gene is involved in some very important cellular processes that enable the budding and spread of HIV and other viruses within the human body. The introduction of the anti-TSG101 antibody into a patient’s body provides a novel treatment for reducing the spread of Ebola, HIV or Marburg virus, another viral disease which can cause hemorrhagic fever.
#1: Damage Reduction Control for Humanoid Robot Fall
We’ve seen some great innovations in the field of robotics this year and these technologies have made a great impact on our patent coverage here at IPWatchdog. Many of the technological developers we’ve been following have created various robotics systems for cleaning floors, cutting lawns and even providing robotic pixels for virtual displays (another Disney innovation). What we’re finding is that there’s almost no work that cannot be automated through the use of robotics and that fact has inspired a lot of hopes and fears throughout a world that is slowly coming to understand what robots could actually become in the near future.
Humanoid robots are a little ways off from being ready for mainstream consumer use, but innovations like this system developed by Honda are big steps forward in that regard. It’s almost strange to profile a robotic technology as the top patent of 2014 when it wasn’t patented by Samsung, which has had an incredibly strong focus on research and development in robotics that we’ve profiled in our Companies We Follow coverage of that company. This invention enables a higher degree of safety for humans interacting with humanoid robots as well as the robotic units themselves. The computer-implemented method claimed by the patent, which was issued in November, provides a fall control management system that generates a rotational movement when it’s determined that the robot is falling so that a predetermined body segment impacts the ground, reducing the effect of the impact on the more fragile components of the robot.