Blockchain Will Coordinate Airspace so Delivery Drones Don’t Crash

Blockchain and drones: How will we control the new highways in the skies above us while small planes fill the space above our cities?

Blockchain is a new industry. And yet systems are being conceived around it that are even newer. And this concept is one of them. For those of us with children, we are told to prepare them for jobs that don’t yet exist. So read on.

It has been predicted that within a couple of years, drones will be on us all the time. They will operate in an underlayer of the sky, below the routes of commercial flights and military aircraft. But their flight paths will have to be coordinated. This is so they don’t bump into each other while delivering cargo, transporting people, and inspect things like wind turbines and bridges. No one needs drone smashing raining down on them, thanks.

An air traffic control sublayer has been devised to address this. It will work using distributed ledger technology (DLT), blockchain, and automation. Research around this new sublayer in the aviation industry is already underway. The idea is to improve security, cybersecurity and interoperability.

cranfield The researchers are part of this project. They say the system will integrate an ecosystem of manned and unmanned aircraft in the UK skies.

Air taxi drones in urban airspace. Credit: AMU-LED Consortium

unmanned drones

These researchers say that UAVs are already bringing benefits to humans. The examples given are to solve medical logistics problems in isolated areasand inspect infrastructure that is difficult to access, such as tall masts.

The researchers say that a new air traffic management system “will open a new era of business opportunities for the aviation sector, as well as drone-enhanced public services: urban air taxis, cargo and delivery services, security operations, health support and environmental monitoring.

According to PWC and UKRI, a new industry around autonomous and unmanned aviation will be worth an estimated £42 billion to the UK economy by 2030. This is due to new jobs, cost savings and productivity gains. Once this new industry is established, it is anticipated that there will be a hybrid airspace around 2024.

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Blockchain: increased transparency and trust

This future, of an unmanned aircraft that uses blockchain-style technology to solve logistics problems, is being developed by a collaboration of 13 consortium partners, including Cranfield, Oxford University, Heathrow Airport, IAG, NATSY SITE. Also in the mix are some UK-based startups.

As the drones fly over us, the system will allow thousands of independent computers to share historical data of who did what and when. Says Cranfield, “The system includes ‘smart contracts,’ controls over user actions backed by encrypted security. Artificial intelligence will enhance cybersecurity measures for DLTs, enabling constant real-time data collection, processing and authorization during operations.”

Automation and autonomy will unlock huge benefits

Dr Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management at Cranfield. “Human operators at traditional ATMs already face heavy workloads and an avalanche of data from different information systems, flight planning, radar and weather. The current approach is not scalable to meet the needs of a more complex and demanding hybrid airspace of crewed and unmanned traffic. To access the enormous potential benefits of a new type of airspace, there has to be more automation and autonomy, but that can only happen with hermetic systems and a shared sense of trust.”

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Dr Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management at Cranfield University

Yann Cabaret is the CEO of SITE. “Like the air transport industry in general, the successful introduction of unmanned aircraft systems will largely depend on the secure exchange of data between operators, airports and air traffic management. Through this research partnership, we are confident that the use of DLT will improve the flow of actionable data between transportation stakeholders to support the efficient and safe operation of drones in the future. At SITA, we have already demonstrated the benefits of DLT in tracking aircraft parts to share operational data at the airport. This is a natural extension of that work.”

Test scenarios in urban environments

So far, we’ve established that most people who live in cities can expect to see a variety of drones in the airspace above them, and soon. These drones will take people to hospitals, put out fires or deliver packages.

According to Urban Air Mobility (UAM))“Like the air traffic management system for aircraft in general, [this] will ensure that drone operations are carried out safely and efficiently. The system is more automated than current air traffic control, with less human interaction and the ability to handle more flights simultaneously.”

gokhan inalhan is Professor of Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence at Cranfield. “This is a very exciting project and one that will pave the way for highways in the skies, eliminating traffic and congestion and changing the way we get around.”

Let’s look at this space and remember to look up.

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