Blockchain: The Digital Black Box in Unmanned Aviation

blockchain in unmanned aviation

Our airspace, historically dominated by commercial aircraft and helicopters, is now being shared with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) of all shapes and sizes at a growing rate. In fact, the volume of drones is already outpacing manned aircraft. According to the FAA, there are nearly four times as many registered drones as manned aircraft.

In the near future, we’ll also see unmanned vehicles carrying passengers and cargo take flight. NASA projects the number of unmanned flights per year will reach 500 million for package delivery services and 750 million for passenger transportation by 2030.

However, there are a couple key challenges that must be addressed to keep our skies safe and provide drone operators with equitable airspace access, particularly in high-risk areas near airports and urban environments.

  1. Flight transparency: For starters, real-time awareness of all current and planned unmanned flights is critical to ensure airspace safety. This requires drone operators to share a detailed record of their intended flight paths, position tracks, flight status, and any route changes during flight. These details must be accurate and up to date to optimize the airspace and pre-empt unnecessary deconfliction with other aircraft. However, this process becomes increasingly difficult as businesses autonomously operate a larger volume of drones to deliver packages, surveil pipelines, monitor crops, and more.
  2. Flight auditability: In the wake of an incident, aviation authorities also need access to historical flight data to determine the sequence of events and hold operators accountable. However, they need assurances the flight logs haven’t been tampered with by the drone operator or a third party. This requires the industry to ensure the security and integrity of data exchanged between drone operators, authorities, and service suppliers.

In manned aviation, these challenges are addressed by using long-range radars to monitor aircraft in-flight and black boxes to audit flight data following an incident. An airplane’s black box refers to its flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR), typically stored near the tail of an aircraft. The FDR records key parameters such as time, altitude, and airspeed, while the CVR records the pilot’s voice, radio transmissions, and engine noises.

So what’s the solution in unmanned aviation? It’s evident a new approach is required to ensure the traceability and accountability of drones, especially given the volume of unmanned aircraft taking flight. The answer is a tamper-proof “digital black box” powered by blockchain technology.

What is blockchain technology?

In technical terms, blockchain is a distributed ledger of immutable records stored in a decentralized database. Although it sounds complex, this technology can simplify the process of sharing accurate, up-to-date flight data with authorities by assigning a unique ID to every unmanned aircraft and maintaining a real-time record of each drone’s status, flight details (e.g., altitude, coordinates), operator, and maintenance history.

This approach enables a common operating picture recorded securely, accurately, and permanently on a digital ledger. In a blockchain, each flight log is linked to the previous log with cryptography so they can’t be altered retroactively. That means authorities can analyze flight data in the wake of an incident and hold operators accountable with certainty the data hasn’t been tampered with.

The use of private keys ensures only authorized parties have access to confidential data, such as flight plans, operator details, and payload information. This gives businesses assurances their operational data won’t be accessed or intercepted by a malicious actor.

Ultimately, blockchain technology can replace the traditional black box to enable a more advanced, digital approach in unmanned aviation. Augmented with smart contracts, blockchain also has the ability to automate compliance with the airspace rules and help ensure every drone is safe to fly.

Learn more about blockchain and the impact it can have on unmanned aviation in our latest whitepaper.