Using Blockchain to Address Drone Cybersecurity

Drone cybersecurity and safety has been an issue since Dr. Samuel Langley first flew a steam-powered, unpiloted aircraft over the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. in 1896.

Drone use has enormous potential advantages in many fields, including insurance, agriculture, energy, health care, law enforcement and product delivery. The FAA indicated that commercial drones could generate billions for the U.S. economy and create thousands of jobs. But the recent expansion of drone use in numerous fields has also caused increased cybersecurity concerns

Fortunately, there are many compensating controls, including blockchain, radio-frequency security and information countermeasures. These can help bring drone cybersecurity to a positive level, unlocking the immense business and social potential of the emerging drone technology and ecosystem.

From Humble Beginnings to Ubiquity

After Dr. Langley’s experiments at the end of the 19th century, aviation drone use gradually and consistently developed and expanded, roughly in parallel to that of piloted and passenger aircraft. By the 1930s, there were many advanced hobbyists with model aircraft controlled by radio, and by the end of World War II there was a large range of remote-controlled flying devices. Yet only recently has drone use expanded into every aspect of the public imagination. Why is that?

It’s the same reason why smartphones and laptops have also become ubiquitous: tremendous advances in electronics and allied fields, particularly integrated circuits, batteries and plastic materials. Unlike the model airplanes of the 1930s, many of today’s modern drones have electrically powered engines, computers for both internal and external guidance, and robust two-way communication capabilities.

Perhaps most importantly, modern drones are mass produced and affordable. Once viewed as toys for skilled hobbyists, drones have become useful for prosumers and regular consumers alike. Like many other technologies, drones have now circled back to professional use.

Modern drones range in size from that of large aircraft to that of an insect, with the smaller consumer quadcopter configuration the most common. Due to rising sea levels and other factors, there is even interest in water-born and undersea versions.

Drone Cybersecurity Concerns

Unfortunately, the use of drones has many cybersecurity and privacy implications. Drones can fly over people and property and interfere with the operation of full-size aircraft. They could conceivably carry weapons or dangerous materials to critical locations. At a minimum, drones could take pictures, possibly committing privacy violations. There is also some concern that drones could aid in IT hacking by bringing sensors or disruptive electronics near a possible target.

Fortunately, the U.S. recently passed clear legal governance for drone operations, including some new regulations in late June. These regulations, which must be understood by any present or prospective drone operator, give instructions regarding drone size, speed, altitude, registration and many other pertinent areas of use. The new regulations allow commercial drones to fly over structures and cars, and do not require the pilot to file flight path data. Also, for the first time, commercial drone pilots are not required to obtain an aircraft pilot’s license; they do, however, need to acquire a drone pilot’s license.

But how do we ensure that these regulations are adhered to and that drones are appropriately and safely operated? There is an analytical framework that may help: Perhaps we should consider a multidimensional system of information guidance to complement the physical guidance of the drone itself.

Understanding Blockchain and Radio-Frequency Security

One interesting and powerful way to do this is via blockchain technology. Blockchain may help regularize and control appropriate use of drones. It does so by keeping a high-speed, assured ledger of airspace activity and information regarding the drone and its operator, and distributing it to all appropriate parties.

In the old days, two trains were kept from colliding on a single track by the use of hardware tokens — the engineer could not proceed unless a physical token was in his or her possession. The drone airspace is multidimensional, rapid and infinitely more complicated. But blockchain, augmented by other technologies and software tokens, could aid in deconfliction. Blockchain could help assemble information and augment avenues for airspace deconfliction in many ways, both intrinsic and external to the drone.

For example, the drone’s GPS may receive the locations of other drones, either directly from the others or through drone controllers on the ground. It may also receive security validation of its own hardware, software and provenance.

Signal strength awareness could also help. In general, the radio frequency signal strengths from certain drone models, particularly the ubiquitous quadcopters, obey the inverse-square law and do not differ by a large order of magnitude. An airborne drone may be able to appropriately sense and avoid the location of another drone that is very close by assessing its signal strength.

The drone may also receive external information using radar, chemical viewing or other optical and sonic capabilities. There are four different types of radar: active (using the drone’s transmitter or illuminator), passive (using another drone’s transmitter), basic (from one location) and multistatic (when the radar transmitter and receiver are at different locations).

Coupled radio direction finding is another way for a drone to measure the direction from which a signal was transmitted, using antenna triangulation or wave timing. It can also analyze signals using cognitive pattern recognition. Through this process, a receiver notes that there are several local ground control stations, which seem to be directing drones to roughly the same place at the same time.

Preparing for a Sky Full of Drones

IBM is a longtime leader in airspace operations high and low. Very recently, the IBM Weather Company began delivering real-time data to drone operators via AirMap. Other innovations include a method and system for comparing micro-electronic devices using magnetic resonance imaging, a method and system for vessel authentication and location validation, and balanced and shortened antennae.

To help ensure the great capabilities, concerns regarding security may begin to be addressed by blockchain. The beneficial drone ecosystem can now be reinforced by a radio frequency and blockchain management system.

Hy Chantz

Associate Partner - Blockchain Solutions, Global Banking and Financial Markets Center of Competency; IBM Master Inventor

Hyman David (Hy) Chantz is an Associate Partner - Blockchain Solutions in IBM's Global Banking and Financial Markets...