The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has turned its focus towards blockchain technology to help safeguard the privacy and security of aircraft data. In a recently published research paper, NASA’s aero computer engineer, Ronald Reisman, calls for the creation of a NASA blockchain platform which would function as an open source permissioned network that will enhance privacy for both corporate and military flight operations.
The ADS-B Surveillance System
NASA blockchain exploration comes amidst plans by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to transition to a new air surveillance system known as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). The ADS-B technology will allow aerial vehicles to determine their position via satellite navigation; this information will then be broadcasted intermittently to enable efficient tracking. ADS-B implementation is expected to reduce in-trail spacing and allow ocean operators to seek optimum altitudes. Application of this technology will also cut fuel burn by more than 80 gallons per flight. However, there is a drawback to adopting this new system.
The ADS-B is known to have certain vulnerabilities which could grant unwarranted public access to confidential data. This limitation is not present in the traditional surveillance system currently being used. In its current form, important information on the ADS-B such as selected flights, aircraft state data, position, and aircraft identity could be exposed to the public and utilized by bad actors to carry out unwanted activities.
The FAA has maintained that the transition to ADS-B should commence by January 1, 2020, so there is a sense of urgency to develop an application that will effectively secure data on this new surveillance system.
NASA Blockchain Proposal
In his publication, Reisman has proposed the adoption of a permissioned NASA blockchain framework to help counter the vulnerabilities of the ADS-B. Reisman’s prototype blockchain platform is known as the Aviation Blockchain Infrastructure (ABI). It will be based on Hyperledger Fabric (a Linux Foundation project) and will leverage smart contracts to allow for efficient communication and transaction amongst stakeholders while providing full control over the data sharing process between public and private entities.
According to the paper,
“The design innovation is the use of an open source permissioned blockchain framework to enable aircraft privacy and anonymity while providing a secure and efficient method for communication with Air Traffic Services, Operations Support, or other authorized entities.”
The Aviation Blockchain Infrastructure will provide both public and private channels for storing data. Authorized network participants would be able to conduct private transactions while simultaneously co-existing with other restricted members on the same network. The approach would allow sensitive aircraft state data like latitude, longitude, and altitude to be securely stored on a private channel while less sensitive information like destination, route or origin can be made public by broadcasting it on a public channel which other members can access.
Other NASA Blockchain Exploits
Currently, more than 40,000 aircraft (25% of US aircraft) are equipped with the ADS-B system. It undoubtedly presents many new advantages for the growing aircraft industry, but the lack of adequate data security cannot be underemphasized. Provided that it can scale through the testing phase, it is very likely that NASA will embrace and adopt Reisman’s blockchain system given the impending deadline in 2020.
As a space agency, NASA has also revealed its ambitious intentions to leverage blockchain technology to develop an autonomous spacecraft. Last year, the agency made headlines when it announced that it donated $330,000 to fund the research of a professor at the University of Akron. The research goal is to evaluate the potential of building an Ethereum-based blockchain application to help spacecraft track and avoid moving space rocks or debris.
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