Blockchain will coordinate airspace so delivery drones don’t crash

Blockchain will coordinate airspace so delivery drones don’t crash
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 as small planes fill the space above our cities?

Blockchain is a new industry. And yet there are systems being developed around what is 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 exist yet. So read on.

It has been predicted that within a couple of years, drones will be all over us. They will operate in a layer of the sky, below commercial flight paths and military aircraft. But their flight routes must be coordinated. This is so they don’t crush each other while delivering cargo, ferrying people and inspecting things like wind turbines and bridges. No one needs to be rained on by smashing drones, please.

A sub-layer of flight control has been developed to solve this. It will work using both distributed ledger tech (DLT), blockchain and automation. Research into this new subsection of the aviation industry is already well under way. The idea is to improve security, cyber security and interoperability.

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

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

Unmanned drones

These researchers say that unmanned aerial vehicles are already providing benefits to humans. Examples given are solving medical logistics problems in isolated areas, and inspecting hard-to-reach infrastructure, such as tall masts.

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

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

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Blockchain – increases transparency and trust

This future – with an unmanned aircraft using blockchain technology to solve logistical problems – is being worked on in a collaboration between 13 consortium partners, including Cranfield, Oxford University, Heathrow Airport, IAG, NATS and SITA. Also in the mix are some UK-based startups.

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

Automation and autonomy will unlock enormous benefits

Dr Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management at Cranfield. “Human operators in traditional ATMs already face high workloads and a flood of data from various 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 manned and unmanned traffic. For to access the huge potential benefits of a new type of airspace there needs to be more automation and autonomy – but that can only happen with watertight systems and a shared sense of trust.”

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

Yann Cabaret is CEO of SITA. “Not unlike the wider air transport industry, the successful introduction of Uncrewed Aircraft Systems will rely heavily on secure data exchange between operators, airports and air traffic control. Through this research partnership, we are confident that using DLTs will improve the flow of actionable data between transport stakeholders to support the efficient and safe operation of unmanned aircraft in the future. At SITA, we have already demonstrated the benefits of DLT in tracking aircraft parts for sharing operational data at the airport. This is a natural extension of that work.”

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Testing scenarios in urban environments

So far, we’ve established that most people living in cities can expect to see a number 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), “Just like the air traffic management system for general aviation, [this] shall ensure that drone operations are carried out safely and efficiently. The system is more automated than today’s air traffic control, with less human interaction and the capacity to handle multiple 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 freeways in the sky, removing traffic and congestion and changing the way we move.”

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

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