Whether it is the Roomba vacuum taking over mundane household activities or NASA’s sophisticated rovers exploring the surface of Mars, robots are performing an increasingly varied range of tasks in today’s society. Networked and mobile industrial robots are transforming the traditional assembly lines in automotive and electronics factories. Surgical robots are performing intricate medical procedures, while telepresence robots are changing how patients communicate with their healthcare providers. Drones in different sizes and degrees of autonomy are used for a broad range of tasks, from crop monitoring for sustainable agriculture practices to surveillance and targeted strikes in military operations. Innovation in robotics technology therefore has significant strategic, economic, social, legal, and moral implications.
Patent activity is one useful indicator of technological advancement in robotics. Designed to protect invention and intellectual property, patents are a linkage between science, technology, and commercial activity. Trends in patenting provide information about the vibrancy and dynamism of the broader innovation ecosystem. Invention and innovation are not a zero-sum game, and the transfer and diffusion of certain technologies can have economic and societal benefits across national borders. That said, patents—and robotics patents in particular—are also an important part of the equation when assessing scientific and technological competition.
This report provides an overview of global trends in robotics patents granted to inventors across 88 countries between 2005 and 2019. While discussions and policies aimed at winning the global technology competition typically focus on China as the principal strategic competitor of the United States, Russia’s advances in emerging technologies such as robotics and AI, especially for military applications, can undermine U.S. strategic interests and merit further attention. With that, the report also delves into robotics patenting activity in Russia, and assesses the landscape of military robotics patents, both in Russia and around the world.
Examining global patent activity between 2005 and 2019, our key findings are as follows:
- China leads in granted robotics patents, accounting for nearly 35 percent of the global robotics patents total between 2005 and 2019. The United States ranks fourth, with about 13 percent of the world’s total robotics patent output for this time period, coming in after Japan and South Korea.
- While Russia accounts for only 2 percent of the global robotics patent output between 2005 and 2019, it is responsible for 17 percent of the global military robotics patents, ranking third in the world in this category.
- Industrial robotics is the most popular category of robotics patent types, followed by medical robotics and transportation.
- The United States leads in robotics patents in areas such as aerospace, medical, military/security, and telepresence, as well as robotics patents with AI features. China tops the chart in patents for industrial robotics, transportation, humanoid/exoskeleton, agriculture, underwater applications, and education.