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

A new approach is needed for safe and seamless integration of crewed and autonomous aircraft, according to the researchers at Cranfield University (Credit: Shutterstock)

Blockchain-like technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will be key to creating a safe and seamless ‘hybrid airspace’ of crewed and uncrewed aircraft, according to the authors of a new report.

Air traffic management (ATM) capacity and systems must transform to create a ‘new age of commercial opportunities for the aviation sector’, said 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 uncrewed traffic being set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization,” said the researchers in an announcement.

The report, which sets out what a working UTM (Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management) could look like, was based on a research partnership between 13 consortium partners, including Cranfield, Heathrow Airport, IAG, NATS, Sita and Oxford University, as well as UK start-ups and small-to-medium enterprises.

The creation of a UTM will be accelerated by technologies that increase levels of transparency and trust, according to the report. Distributed ledger technologies (DLTs) – 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 oversight of the history of data (who did what and when). The system includes ‘smart contracts’, controls over user actions backed up by coded security,” the announcement said.

AI will enhance cybersecurity measures for the DLTs, allowing for real-time data collection, processing and authorization during operations.

Report coordinator Dr Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos, senior lecturer in UTM at Cranfield University, said: “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 isn’t scalable to meet the needs of a more complex and demanding hybrid airspace of crewed and uncrewed traffic.

“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.”

Yann Cabaret, CEO of Sita, said: “The successful introduction of UAS will rely heavily on secure data exchange between operators, airports and air traffic management. Through this research partnership we are confident that using DLTs will improve the flow of actionable data between transportation stakeholders to support the efficient and safe operation of unmanned aircraft in future.

“At Sita, we have already demonstrated the benefits of DLT in tracking aircraft parts to sharing operational data at the airport. This is a natural extension of that work.”

The Development of a UTM System Using Cross-Cutting Technologies: Distributed Ledgers and Artificial Intelligence proposes a new framework that sets a series of rules for stakeholders participating in a distributing ledger, so they can provide and receive data and services in a ‘trustworthy environment’. It also highlights the need for modernization of ATM.

“We only have one way forward when it comes to delivering the transformation needed, and that is cross-sector collaboration,” said Dr Panagiotakopoulos. “A common vision and communications are needed between the 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.

“Our report sets out the basis for a fundamental underpinning of a working system – a data-sharing and cybersecurity solution.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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