The technology behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin is being touted as the solution for managing safety-critical information in aviation. Can this idea fly?
Open any information technology (IT) magazine or website and you are likely to encounter a new word—blockchain. Read on and you will find this technology being sold as the solution for all manner of business, government and organisational problems because of its vaunted ability to store information reliably and without fear of alteration. Some of its advocates go as far as to assert that it makes centralised authorities, such as banks, governments and, presumably, aviation regulators, obsolete. Proposed aviation applications include verifying pilot licensing and logbooks, validation of components to control the problem of counterfeiting, and reliable and accessible storage of aircraft maintenance records. Could this be the future?
Blockchain is the technology that made the internet currency bitcoin possible. At first glance there wouldn’t seem to be much connection between bitcoin and aviation safety. Bitcoin is a digital cryptocurrency that first found favour with users who used its anonymity to trade in drugs and other nefarious items on the so-called dark web. The decentralised, unregulated electronic money with no government backing and no central bank has had a wild ride, trading between $US30c per bitcoin in 2011, and $US19,666 at its peak in late 2017.
What made bitcoin work in the absence of government backing was software originally called the block chain. It is a distributed ledger that records all transactions for an asset in a ledger shared across multiple locations and where each transaction is verified by all parties that share the ledger. In being distributed across a network it differs from the physical and computerised central clearing houses used by governments, banks and credit card companies.
Each record is a ‘block’ which is ‘chained’ to previous and subsequent blocks thereby creating an immutable historical record, a single source of truth, as blockchain’s advocates call it.
Once a ‘block’ is validated, the ledger can be updated in seconds and all changes are replicated so all participants have an accurate record of an asset’s position, the transactions relating to that asset and the chain of title. It’s an append-only ledger, meaning once a record joins the blockchain it cannot be changed.
Blockchain has found uses beyond cryptocurrency, with diamond producer De Beers developing the technology to create an immutable and permanent digital record for every registered diamond—and cut down on conflict (so-called ‘blood’) diamonds.
British Airways is developing blockchain to ensure that all parties involved in the operation of the flight departure airports, arrival airports, airline crew, ground services and passengers are working efficiently from the exact same, trusted information.
‘We’re trying to solve the flight info problem where everyone has got different information about a flight,’ blockchain developer Kevin O’Sullivan told Apex.aero.
‘When a passenger turns up in an airport, their app will say one thing, the display in the airport says another, and then the crew on the ground says something else. Then the ground handlers often have different information as well,’ said O’Sullivan. ‘The reason for that is that everyone has got their own copy of the data, and it’s not in sync. Even when they try to keep it in sync, it falls out of sync.’
Researchers for aviation law firm Norton Rose Fullbright have proposed creating a blockchain register of aircraft subsystems.
‘Creating a blockchain register of all major parts and sub-systems would have many benefits for the industry,’ they say. ‘For example, it could allow maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations (MROs) access to the full operational history, parts history and specific configuration of an aircraft or engine from a single point. The usage and maintenance records of parts could also be uploaded and easily shared between all stakeholders—manufacturers, owners, lessors, lessees, maintenance organisations and regulators.’
In August 2018, the world’s largest shipping company, Maersk, and information technology company IBM announced a jointly developed blockchain technology, TradeLens, to manage supply chains.
‘Shippers, shipping lines, freight forwarders, port and terminal operators, inland transportation and customs authorities can interact more efficiently through real-time access to shipping data and shipping documents, including an internet-of-things and sensor data ranging from temperature control to container weight,’ IBM and Maersk said.
New applications for blockchain appear almost daily, and include electronic voting, file tracking, property title management, and the organisation of worker cooperatives.
But some experts are questioning the rush to embrace the latest technology.
‘Much of the current rhetoric around the blockchain hints at problems with the techno-utopian ideologies that surround digital activism, and points to the assumptions these projects fall into time and again,’ says Rachel O’Dwyer from Trinity College, Dublin.
With a distinctly Irish flair for expression she goes on to declare, ‘poking fun at blockchain evangelism is now a nerdy pastime, more enjoyable even than ridiculing handlebar moustaches and fixie bicycles’.
IT consultant Stephen Wilson of Constellation Research has seen generations of trends come and go since he began his computing career as a systems’ engineer in the early 1990s. He says the language and expectations surrounding blockchain are reminiscent of earlier crazes.
‘The technology and the verbiage are very similar to what I saw with PKI (public key infrastructure) in the late 1990s. That turned out to be nonsense.’
‘You hear a lot of predictions about blockchain and it’s almost all wrong. There’s an intense, almost religious, desire to believe there will be a way of identifying ourselves in cyberspace.’
Among the drawbacks of blockchain for aviation is its mysterious origins. Blockchain and bitcoin were proposed in a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008.
‘The thing is, Satoshi Nakamoto emerges essentially out of nowhere,’ Wilson says. ‘We don’t know if Nakamoto is a man, woman, a syndicate, or a James Bond style villain. Part of the attraction and romance of bitcoin is this mythical character.’ (Proposed candidates range from billionaire Elon Musk, to an Australian software developer, Craig Steven Wright, to a Japanese American computer engineer of the same name, who denied any connection.)
Then there’s the digital architecture of blockchain—it’s open source software, available to anyone, and dependent on volunteers for development and debugging.
‘Where blockchain might be useful for aviation is that you can tag your bitcoin transaction in the metadata section,’ Wilson says. ‘Since about 2012, people have been using this facility to permanently store other information, by tagging dummy bitcoin transactions.’
‘All of this stuff depends on whether the information being put in is true or not. If all you’re doing is moving bitcoin around, then the record is the record—immutable. But as soon as you start putting metadata in, transferring information from the real world, there’s no guarantee of accuracy. You are back to the world of trust.’
‘The data will stay there forever and can’t be erased. But if it’s not bitcoin there’s absolutely no guarantee that it’s valid. I don’t mean to be rude but there’s an old adage in computing—garbage in garbage out. With blockchain you could rudely say bullshit in, bullshit forever.’
One solution might be specific digital credentials, Wilson says. You need a way to impart information into the blockchain in an incorruptible way.
‘It’s the “edge problem”. Thousands of people need, in blockchain parlance, a wallet. That’s a piece of software, a chip or something on their phone that substantiates their credentials. Blockchain itself doesn’t solve that problem.’
An IT start-up registered in Belize, Aeron.aero proposes to use smartphone apps that would automatically track and record a pilot’s flights. ‘Once the flight is submitted to blockchain, its status can be viewed, and validated against aircraft operator log (for the same aircraft) and ATC data (once the automated ATC data processing with Data Hub is set up),’ Aeron says.
Wilson sees aviation applications as belonging more to blockchain-like software than actual open source blockchain. ‘There’s been a lot of recent work in private blockchains and private ledgers,’ he says. ‘The leaders in this area include IBM and a public project called Hyperledger.’
‘They are looking to industrialise and evolve blockchain principles into something much more like a managed service. To that extent it starts to look like a normal business, with a high reliability architecture inherited from the original blockchain. There’s potential there.’