Patent Watch: Airbus Circular Cabin

A patent application by the European defense and aerospace firm Airbus has published — with a ‘revolutionary’ design. Most passenger aircraft consist of a long, pressurized tube. The cylindrical shape is good at containing pressure over most of its length. According to the patent application, however, cylinders tend to leak at the front and back ends, requiring heavy, reinforced cockpit and tail structures.

Patent application 2014/0319274 by Airbus engineers replaces the cylindrical passenger space with a doughnut-shaped enclosure. The doughnut hole is evidently a handy spot for either passenger luggage, or passenger boarding entrances. The oblong cross-section provides significant lift over the entire aircraft, not just the wings. This feature should improve fuel efficiency.

But will this application issue as a patent? The broadest claims require only an aircraft with a ring-shaped passenger compartment. Science fiction writers and inventors alike have been envisioning circular aircraft, and ways of putting people inside, for well over fifty years. In a 1957 patent below, passengers are seated in the enclosure labeled 81, which is a doughnut or teardrop-shaped structure around a central air intake structure, 82. Because the design is a common element, Airbus may have to accept a more limited claim scope than it might like.

Even if the application doesn’t ‘take off,’ though, the mere filing generates benefits for a company. Patent applications generate great publicity: a quick search for “airbus flying saucer” returns over 79,000 hits, including many news articles. A patent application can have tactical or defensive significance, as well. They can be used to warn competitors away from pursuing a field of research. They also discourage competitors from filing similar patent applications. And in many cases, even a narrow patent can give a patent holder enough lead time to establish a dominant design.

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