Roping your data challenge — with blockchain

By Matt De Reno

In the Ft. Worth Convention Center lobby, there hangs a giant lone star. This star is hard to miss. It is composed of hundreds of cowboy hats of many shapes, sizes and colors. 

This astral hat holder symbolizes to me the many different hats aerospace engineers will need to wear in the coming years, especially as they attempt to lasso the new challenges of the aerospace industry, a place looking more and more like the wild west of old. 

Amidst temperate Texas weather, I attended the SAE 2017 AeroTech Congress & Exhibition, a premier biennial aerospace hootenanny that took place late September in historic and charming Ft. Worth. There I learned a good bit about the modern challenges aerospace engineers wrangled with — especially in the autonomous aircraft space. 

It became clear that today's aerospace engineers were no longer just tasked with engineering, they must also be versed in cyber security, software systems, AI, IoT, cognitive computing, and a host of other emerging technologies too.

During the three day event, I had the opportunity to help facilitate several focus groups. Our goal was to identify and discuss the greatest challenges that the aerospace industry faced in the coming years. The topics discussed included: industry collaboration, sensor evaluation, testing, autonomous vehicle perception, collision risk management, education and training, economics and data. For this posting, I would like to address the data challenge in particular, because it rose to the top of many of these discussions. 

Storing the massive amounts of sensor data, determining who owns the data, and protecting data from cyber outlaws — if you will — were recurring themes around our focus group campfires. 

This should come as no surprise.

Autonomous technology involves thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of potentially interacting systems, sensors and devices all sharing and passing along incredible amounts of data. For an aerospace or automotive engineer — this presents a host of perplexing and hard to solve problems. On top of this, the stakes are incredibly high. 

Imagine a scenario where terrorists gain control of an aircraft through a remote controlled device — while you were on the plane. Picture a cyber hacker spreading false information through the on-board entertainment system - informing you that the plane is now in the hands of someone else?  

These nightmare scenarios are an order of magnitude greater than today's cyber security ransomware attacks where your data is essentially kidnapped until you pay up. Even in the case of the recent Experian cyber hack, it's one thing for your personal data to be comprised, but quite another if your actual physical safety, and those of many others, is put directly into harm's way because of a cyber hacker.  We need to figure out how to protect these systems and we need to do it now.

Autonomous aviation — and unmanned ground vehicles too— are poised to be the AI-powered covered wagons of tomorrow and how we circle them when the cyber outlaws come will be critical to the success of this industry.  

One possible solution that occurred to me is blockchain.  

Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology and powers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. It is a digital, and continuously growing, list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using key-based cryptography. Each block typically contains a hash pointer as a link to a previous block, a time stamp and transaction data. 

Blockchain delivers a way to record and transfer data that industry experts believe is transparent, safe, auditable, and resistant to outages. Moreover, organizations could use blockchain to make data transparent, democratic, decentralized, efficient, and yes, secure from cyber outlaws. 

By virtue of it’s design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data, because each block constitutes a node in a chain. When data changes in one node it must be updated in all of them and those nodes must ultimately match. A node that is hacked, can be isolated if it doesn't match the distributed record of other nodes.  

Another strength of blockchain is the ability to leverage a peer-to-peer network, each collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once data is recorded in a block, it cannot be altered retroactively, without the alteration of all subsequent blocks. These traits make blockchain ideally suited for the task of securing data.

But why else does applying blockchain to managing data in the aerospace industry make old fashioned common sense? 

Trust.

Data is only valuable when it can be trusted. Blockchain is engineered to bolster trust in data. 

Blockchain can add critical trust to data as data passes through ownership from one entity to another, no matter how complex the supply chain. The distributed ledger nature of blockchain safeguards the transfer of data ownership rights when it is needed and those rights can be negotiated through the aerospace supply chain beforehand. 

Much like a gold prospector staking a claim or coming into to town to have gold nuggets weighed, blockchain can serve as a trusted system of weights and measures for aerospace data, so that any supplier, manufacturer, service provider, and yes, the passenger too, can each stake a data claim, own it, and trust the value in that data. 

After all, trust is a risk judgement between different parties, and in the digital wild west, establishing trust whittles down to authentication and authorization and blockchain does that well.

Other industries are already applying blockchain technology to solve similar complex data problems. These industries include finance, banking, insurance, healthcare, the government sector, cloud storage, and many others. 

If you ask me, there is a new sheriff coming to aerospace town — and its name is blockchain. 

Matthew J. De Reno is the SAE MOBILUS Knowledge Hubs Manager at SAE International.

SAE MOBILUS Knowledge Hubs are your one stop shop for digital mobility engineering resources in cyber security, powertrain, and advanced manufacturing.