Blockchain-like technology ‘key to mixing crewed and autonomous aircraft in hybrid airspace’

A new approach is needed for safe and seamless integration of manned and autonomous aircraft, according to Cranfield University researchers. (Shutterstock)

According to the authors of a new report, blockchain-like technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will be key to creating a safe and seamless “hybrid airspace” of manned and unmanned aircraft.

Air traffic management (ATM) capacity and systems must transform to create a “new era of business opportunity for the aviation sector”, say the researchers from Cranfield University in Bedfordshire.

Elements of the new “ecosystem”, designed to include drone-enhanced public services, urban air taxis, security, healthcare operations and environmental monitoring, could be in place by 2024.

“Collaboration in the aviation industry can increase much-needed levels of automation and autonomy in ATM, and meet safety standards for unmanned traffic set by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” said the researchers said in a statement.

The report, which defines what a working Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management (UTM) might look like, was based on a research partnership between 13 consortium partners, including Cranfield, Heathrow Airport, AGI, NAT, Sita and the University of Oxford, as well as UK start-ups and small and medium-sized businesses.

The creation of a UTM will be accelerated by technologies that increase levels of transparency and trust, according to the report. Distributed ledger technologies (DLT) – similar to blockchain technology – could ensure secure registration and identification of different users in the airspace, improving safety, cybersecurity and interoperability.

“A DLT allows thousands of independent computers to share historical monitoring data (who did what and when). The system includes “smart contracts,” controls over user actions backed by coded security,” the announcement reads.

AI will improve cybersecurity measures for DLTs, enabling real-time data collection, processing and authorization during operations.

Report Coordinator Dr. Dimitrios PanagiotakopoulosSenior Lecturer in UTM at Cranfield University, said: “Human operators in traditional ATM are already dealing with high workloads and a deluge of data from different information systems, planning The current approach is not scalable to meet the needs of a more complex and demanding hybrid airspace of manned and unmanned traffic.

“To access the enormous potential benefits of a new type of airspace, there must be more automation and autonomy – but that can only happen with tight systems and a shared sense of trust.”

Yann Cabaret, CEO of Sita, said: “The successful introduction of UAS will strongly 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 DLTs will improve the flow of actionable data between transportation 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. It is a natural extension of this work.

The development of a UTM system using transversal technologies: distributed ledgers and artificial intelligence proposes a new framework that establishes a set of rules for stakeholders participating in a distribution ledger, so that they can provide and receive data and services in a “trustworthy environment”. It also underlines the need to modernize the ATM.

“We have only one way to go when it comes to achieving the transformation needed, and that is cross-sectoral collaboration,” Dr Panagiotakopoulos said. “A common vision and communications are needed between the UTM service and digital infrastructure providers, unmanned aerial vehicle operators, physical infrastructure providers, ATM service providers, regulators, local and regional authorities and all the stakeholders who could have a point of interaction with this new aeronautical ecosystem.

“Our report lays the foundation for a fundamental foundation of a working system – a data sharing and cybersecurity solution.”

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