In Fall 2019, our team partnered with Aero Systems West (ASW) to increase the safety and security of commercial drone operations utilizing the cutting-edge ICON blockchain. Both of our parties see the potential to improve commercial drone operations through the immutability and provenance of drone data stored on a blockchain (at the discretion and with approval from the owner of the data). The potential of using the ICON Network to provide Digital Identification (DID) for drones may line up very nicely with future rules that could be added to require “Remote ID” by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), discussed later in this article.
Our teams opened initial discussions and began technical work, with Russell Shirey of UBIK capital visiting ASW in December to nail down key concepts and flight test drones with ASW to collect valuable data. We flew using Ardupilot Mission Planner as our flight control software, shown below.
We initially began discussions to explore the safety, reliability, and tracking improvements for drone operations by using blockchain technology. The opportunities are many, as expected, however, connecting a fast-flying drone to the ICON blockchain with block speeds of 2 seconds is no easy task. Further, we desire a ‘plug-in’ capability that is not specific to ASW drones, but can adapt to almost any drone with little modifications. These requirements demand an open software architecture that can maintain resilient communications amidst wireless data loss.
We next discuss the initial architecture model and lessons learned from flight testing.
In order to connect the drone to the ICON network, we must have internet connectivity to the drone. There are many options for this, however, different mission sets require connectivity at extended ranges, or at different rates. Some common options for connectivity include LTE, SATCOM, Line of Sight RF, and Wifi, to name a few. For our plug-in, we will ensure it is compatible with almost any wireless link connectivity, utilizing common internet transport protocols on top of the lower-level network layers, however, the initial prototype will operate with an ASW LTE connected drone. Each link has different ranges and reliability metrics, depending on the agility of the drone and also the range of operations. We must ensure the application is resilient to packet drops. For our initial application, we will fly with the ASW Heavy Lift Multirotor, shown below:
We will utilize a TCP connection from the drone LTE to a server running on the cloud on Amazon Web Services (AWS). This server will connect to the ICON network, enabling data to be stored and accessed on the blockchain (at the discretion and with approval from the owner of the data). In the past few months, we have tested multiple LTE antennas in different positions to ensure maximal connectivity. The LTE antennas connect to a Single Board Computer (SBC) on the drone, enabling the data to pass through in a reliable manner with options coded into the application. This connection was recently successfully tested on the ground, with flight testing to follow.
In addition for the pathway to the ICON network, we need to determine what data we store on the network. The ICON network is very efficient and economic for storing data, however, too much data does still add up and create unnecessary costs and bloat of the system. For drone operations, we are utilizing the open source Micro Air Vehicle Communication Protocol (MAVLINK). This protocol is used by many drones for flight and will enable a standard structure for storage on the blockchain. The autopilot on the drone outputs extensive telemetry data. We flew several flights in December, gathering valuable data for development and testing.
Our teams have discussed which types of data to store, with options to add or reduce this amount in the future. The timing of the data also needs to be considered — as the rate of which new data is stored also impacts performance and cost. As an initial prototype, we will focus on location data, as this can be used for global flight tracking, coordination, safety of flight, and also helps protect operators by providing indisputable flight records that they can use to prove compliance with regulatory entitites.
We anticipate this to grow into other areas. One such area where we anticipate synergy with ICON specifically, is in the area of UAS Remote Identification. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is exploring Remote ID rules to enhance safety and security of drone flights. The FAA defines Remote ID as “the ability of a UAS in flight to provide identification information that can be received by other parties.” This sounds like it may be a great opportunity to utilize Digital ID attached to drones.
We have made excellent progress on our project to integrate the ICON blockchain into drone operations. Our team has enjoyed working with ASW and look forward to continuing development of the initial prototype and flying it in the next few months! We expect to have our prototype completed in the end of 1Q 2020, with flight testing in 2Q 2020. Upon successful completion of testing, ASW can begin to offer this as an option for their drone sales, and our team can move to integrate this product into other drones as an all-in-one package.