How a blockchain approach will help UK realise benefits of hybrid airspace

Creating a new aviation ecosystem that incorporates the safety and security needs of uncrewed aircraft is challenging but promises to bring massive economic returns. Distributed ledger technologies could be the solution.

A report published in 2021 by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the UK is sitting on £42bn of potential economic growth over the coming decade associated with the drones and uncrewed aircraft market.

The problem is that wholesale transformation of existing air traffic management (ATM) systems is needed to open up a new age of commercial opportunities: urban air taxis, cargo and delivery services, security operations, healthcare support and environmental monitoring.

A hybrid airspace shared by crewed and uncrewed aircraft comes with huge complexity, both for localised urban areas and the potential for crowded skies, as well as the global air traffic system as a whole. Human operators in traditional ATM are already facing high workloads and a deluge of data from different information systems, flight planning, radar and weather. The current approach just isn’t scalable in ways that are going to deliver an all-important foundation of confidence among the general public, who are sensitive to any developments going on above their heads.

To access the huge potential benefits of a new kind of airspace there has to be more automation and autonomy, but that can only happen with watertight systems and a shared sense of trust.

We only have one way forward when it comes to delivering the transformation needed: cross-sector collaboration. A common vision and communications are needed between uncrewed aircraft system traffic management (UTM) service and digital infrastructure providers; uncrewed aerial vehicle operators; physical infrastructure providers; ATM service providers; regulators; local and regional authorities, and all the stakeholders that might have some point of interaction with this new aviation ecosystem. That will mean ATM opening itself up to the internet.

Concerns over security mean the aviation industry has remained hermetically sealed from the internet and kept to its own - outdated and sometimes unreliable - information systems. A Cranfield study has estimated that 60 per cent of flight delays that aren’t weather related are due to failures in handling data. Digital aviation innovators - the start-ups using 4G and 5G connectivity - have been held back from having an impact.

Obviously, data being shared across a hybrid airspace needs to be consistently accountable and explainable. Every movement and decision must be explicit and trustworthy; every anomaly has to be clear. At this stage, however, there aren’t clear guidelines on acceptable levels of performance for increasingly automated and autonomous systems.

The answer is going to be in the use of distributed ledger technology (DLT) – an approach similar to blockchain technology - which can be used to ensure there is secure registration and identification of the different users in the airspace, improving safety and cyber security and interoperability between the stakeholders involved.

Using simple definitions and open-source code, this base infrastructure can be used to underpin the future filing of flight plans, the capture and exchange of live routing data, and ensure the right data is made available to the right stakeholders at the right time. In this way, a DLT allows thousands of independent computers to share oversight of the history of data and identify who did what and when.

The system includes ‘smart contracts’ - controls over user actions backed up by coded security. Artificial intelligence will enhance cyber-security measures for the DLTs, allowing for constant real-time data collection, processing and authorisation during operations. A new report outlining the tech involved, ‘The development of a UTM system using cross-cutting technologies: distributed ledgers and artificial intelligence’, proposes a new governance framework that sets a series of rules for those stakeholders participating in a distributing ledger, so that they can provide and receive data and services in a trustworthy environment. It highlights the need for modernisation of ATM in order to allow for the interoperability between UTM and ATM, making ATM and UTM information accessible to all relevant stakeholders.

Opening up the UK’s hybrid airspace is achievable in the near future. Work is underway between a consortium of partners, including Cranfield, Heathrow Airport, IAG, NATS, SITA and Oxford University, as well as UK-based start-ups and SMEs. It’s expected that the framework of working tech will be in place by 2024.

All that’s needed is the shared will and coming together of the main players in the aviation sector to seize the opportunity that’s being presented.

Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos is senior lecturer in unmanned aircraft systems traffic management at Cranfield University’s Centre for Autonomous and Cyberphysical Systems.

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