Anyone who needs things identified or measured from the air can often do it better and at less cost with a drone than a manned aircraft. Sometimes drones are the only usable platform, such as sampling gases close to a refinery’s flare stack, or in search and rescue where a helicopter can’t fly low enough to find someone in harm’s way.
Drones can do a lot, but they can’t yet fly autonomously, free of human intervention. That requires two things: artificial intelligence and blockchain.
Artificial Intelligence: Enabling Autonomous Drone Flight
At the low altitudes and complicated flight patterns they fly, drones can easily encounter the unexpected. That’s a problem because most drones have limited obstacle avoidance. As AI becomes more powerful, it will make drones better at this.
AI in drones will include a very comprehensive decision tree drawn from its sensors, real-time weather information and from existing data such as drone incident reports, its own flight manual, terrain obstacle databases and other sources. For example, AI could instruct a drone to fly to point B rather than point A if higher-than-forecast winds reduce flight time or to fly around a storm cell.
The more experience AI has in encountering new situations, the better it becomes.
But AI is not the only thing needed for autonomous flight.
The Federal Aviation Administration predicted there will be 7 million drones active in the skies over our heads by 2020. In the not too distant future drone flights may reach astronomical numbers. The drivers will be package delivery and air taxi services for people.
Right now UPS and FedEx alone deliver about 20 million packages daily. In just one major city, Tokyo, an average of 1,080,000 people take a taxi each day.
Drone delivery and air taxi flights would have to increase dramatically to handle even a fraction of this volume. Among the roadblocks in scaling to this level:
(1.) Done flights are flown 1:1, where one pilot controls one drone. If drone flights reach very large numbers that’s way too many flights for human pilots to manage.
AI will enable humans to control large numbers of drones in a fleet.
(2.) Data collection: at their heart commercial drones are data collection platforms. Very large numbers of drone flights performed for a common purpose imply many people will want to see data from many drones.
That data must be verifiable back to the individual drone which collected it. In other words, there will be a supply chain of data.
Blockchain: Guaranteeing the Integrity of Drone Data
What blockchain brings to drone flight is verification of when and where data are captured in real time. Blockchain is the only way to ensure the authenticity of information each drone collects.
Imagine dozens of drones monitoring a construction project, for example, a major bridge. Multiple stakeholders at dozens of different public and private organizations are responsible for the project. Parts and materials are sourced worldwide.
The drones may be capturing photos, video, infrared and other non-visible spectra, such as magnetic fields to verify steel quality and measurements of ionizing radiation from soil for risks to human health. The drones will share the data they’ve acquired among people and Internet of Things (IoT) devices in different organizations.
The reliability of the drone’s data on a project like this is paramount. Drone data will be used to prove contract compliance and ensure deadlines and milestones are met. The accuracy and timeliness of data may be linked to financial rewards and penalties. Each stakeholder needs to know beyond doubt the authenticity of the data: where it came from, when, and that it’s a true record.
That’s where blockchain excels. It’s a way of guaranteeing the integrity of a supply chain.
Blockchain provides a highly secure, highly distributed record of transactions in real time. Think of your financial records broken into virtual chunks in the cloud, scattered across multiple servers, yet completely accessible to you and you alone in an instant. Like a tamper-proof seal, blockchain will reveal any attempt at unauthorized access to its data.
Blockchain is already in use to verify complex, high-risk supply chains such as the manufacture of human pharmaceuticals and production of baby formula. The large supermarket group Carrefour uses blockchain to track where products came from. It and other retailers and producers are working to develop standards for using blockchain technology to make food supply chains more efficient and safer.
A package delivery drone fleet could use blockchain to ensure the accuracy of data, such as exchanging real-time information on each drone’s routing, performance time, airspace congestion, incidents on the ground, weather, system health and more. Essential performance verification and flight records for customers, data analysts, fleet managers and regulatory authorities at the city, state and federal levels.
In the near future, commercial drone flights will scale up dramatically. We see a future with large-scale drone operations—hundreds or thousands of virtual eyes in the sky acting together or independently, their data, the things see and measure, beyond the reach of unauthorized people.
Blockchain and AI together are essential in enabling autonomous flight and in providing those responsible for drone data a guarantee of its integrity.