Commercial UAV has spoken about the potential of blockchain to add multiple levels of security and safety to drone operations by adding an indelible database record. Yet, this technology is still relatively new to the drone industry, and there have been few instances where it has been exploited to its full potential.

SkyGrid, a Boeing, SparkCognition Company, is one of those companies who is utilizing blockchain and AI to deliver a next generation airspace management system to their clients. We spoke with Zehra Akbar, senior director of strategy and operations at SkyGrid, to learn more about the company and find out how their system is leveraging this technology, what that means for airspace safety and security, how it might leveraged during the current pandemic, and more. 

What are some of the primary markets SkyGrid is looking to serve?

SkyGrid provides an end-to-end solution for businesses to deploy, manage, and scale their drone operations. Our customers range from large logistics companies to first responders. We enable organizations in every industry to optimize their operations and reduce overhead costs.

We’re also enabling aviation authorities and ANSPs across the globe to safely integrate drones in controlled airspace. Authorities can use SkyGrid to define national airspace standards, automate flight authorizations, and monitor traffic in real-time.

SkyGrid is a Boeing and SparkCognition Company, can you talk about how these two companies play a role in SkyGrid?

As a Boeing, SparkCognition company, we have access to more than 100 years of aviation expertise. This enables us to leverage Boeing partnerships with customers, industry leaders, and regulatory agencies and remain one step ahead of their needs. At the same time, we’re able to engrain our airspace management system with SparkCognition’s latest AI advancements. The company’s award-winning machine learning technology is critical to ensure safe, secure, and efficient drone operations. 

Can you provide a high-level overview of the capabilities of SkyGrid? What features differentiates SkyGrid from other UTM systems out there and how can these features make flight safer, more secure, cheaper, and/or more efficient?

SkyGrid’s Aerial OS provides airspace awareness, flight operations, and fleet management in one integrated solution, enabling safe, secure, and efficient drone operations.

  • Airspace Awareness is a new approach to UTM that uses AI and blockchain to automate standards compliance and provide visibility into the past, present and predicted airspace. The application gives authorities and enterprises a complete picture of the sky in 2D or 3D with rich data layers, including airspace traffic, regulatory restrictions, weather forecasts, obstacle data, vehicle performance, and more.
  • Flight Operations simplifies the increasingly dynamic airspace by enabling commercial operators to automatically plan and execute optimal flight paths with AI-based route planning and deconfliction from other aircraft and obstacles.
  • Fleet Management enables commercial drone operators and managers to intelligently assess, diagnose, and predict vehicle performance across their entire fleet. The application uses AI and blockchain to predict maintenance needs, generate service logs, and automate fleet distribution.

As the only airspace management system built on AI and blockchain technologies, SkyGrid is solving the industry’s biggest challenges integrating unmanned aircraft into complex, rapidly changing airspace. The use of AI allows us to continuously monitor, predict, and adapt flights to changing regulatory dynamics, aircraft performance, and location data. At the same time, blockchain technology allows us to mandate airspace compliance and provide a verified data source that regulators can rely on to accurately monitor and audit unmanned flights.

What challenges within the drone industry led you to developing some of these advanced features like AI-enabled features, blockchain, cybersecurity, and so on?

As the volume of unmanned traffic increases, we need to augment the capabilities of air traffic controllers and operators and ensure they’re equipped to safely manage and operate unmanned aircraft.  

Traditionally, the burden has fallen on operators to manually evaluate the airspace, plan their flight paths, and avoid any risks in-flight. But it’s difficult to plan, execute, and adapt flights in such a complex airspace. At any moment, a new flight restriction could be issued, weather conditions could shift, a drone’s propeller could malfunction, or another aircraft could conflict with a drone’s route. A wide variety of factors can shift rapidly, requiring flight paths to be modified and shared with authorities in near real time.

Technology advancements in AI and blockchain are making it possible for us to eliminate the manual workflows and provide features such as automatic route planning, intelligent deconfliction, predictive maintenance, and immutable audit trails.

When talking about UTM for advanced operations like drone delivery, BVLOS, flights over people, and so on, the requirements for safety and security can become quite complex. What are some ways that SkyGrid is working through solving those challenges?

Planning, executing, and adapting flights is especially difficult for advanced operations such as drone delivery. It’s important to ensure commercial operators are equipped to execute safe flights at scale and avoid hazardous conditions.

Equipped with AI and blockchain, SkyGrid’s system is minimizing the burden on commercial operators. Our AI algorithms can analyze crucial data, such as airspace traffic, weather forecasts, ground risks, and vehicle performance, to select the right drones for each mission, execute optimal flight paths, and autonomously adapt flights as conditions change. SkyGrid’s pre-flight and in-flight deconfliction capabilities are also powered by AI to detect and avoid other aircraft and objects.

At the same time, we’re using blockchain technology to help eliminate the potential for human error in the airspace. Augmented with smart contracts, blockchain is the key to ensure unmanned flights comply with the airspace rules and regulations. Our blockchain-backed system can mandate the defined airspace rules set by local and national authorities, such a flying below 400 feet and avoiding a set radius around airports.

Enterprises can also set additional safety parameters based on different types of missions, payloads, vehicles, and environment conditions. For example, company-wide parameters might include a rule to operate drones with at least 20 percent battery life under 25 mph winds. The blockchain rules are encoded in our system to automatically plan, execute, and adjust flights based on the specified airspace parameters. This helps ensure compliance before flight authorization and during flight as conditions change.

There are many ways AI can be leveraged and defined; can you explain a little bit about how AI functions in SkyGrid’s system and how it adds value to SkyGrid’s system when compared to other non-AI options out there?

We believe AI is critical to autonomously plan, execute, and adapt flight in our complex, dynamic airspace. It’s also the key to ensure drones operate safely and securely. 

For example, our predictive AI technology can help ensure drones are safe to fly by analyzing sensor data across a fleet and flagging suboptimal operations. An AI-based approach can more accurately monitor performance to forecast vehicle health and identify impending failures before they occur. If a potential issue is identified, such as a degrading battery, our AI technology can automatically generate a maintenance request and assign the request to a technician upon landing at a facility.

AI-powered cybersecurity, deployed directly on drones in our system, is also critical to protect against malicious activity, such as malware, ransomware, and viruses. In the emerging UAV environment, new security threats will often take the form of previously unseen, “zero-day” attacks. Traditional anti-malware software, dependent on signatures of known threats, won’t be adequate to detect this unknown malware. Instead of relying on an existing threat database, an AI-based approach can learn the DNA of what a malicious file might look like to detect malicious activity and prevent it from executing on a drone.

With all of the concerns out there in the U.S. about data security and drone safety, can you talk about what led you to use blockchain to secure data versus other databases?  

Real-time awareness of all unmanned flights is critical to ensure the safety and equity of our airspace. In the wake of an incident, historical flight logs are also critical, but authorities need assurances the data hasn’t been tampered by the drone operator or a third party. This will require us to ensure the security and integrity of data exchanged between drone operators, authorities, and service suppliers.

An airspace system built on blockchain technology makes it easy for commercial operators to share accurate flight plans in real time and maintain high standards of auditability. Our blockchain-backed system assigns a unique ID to every drone and maintains a real-time record of each drone’s status, flight details (e.g., altitude, location, operator), and maintenance history. Each flight log is linked to the previous log with cryptography so they can’t be altered retroactively.

The decentralized nature of a blockchain system also provides more security than traditional, centralized storage since there’s not one database a bad actor can compromise. This approach enables authorities to analyze flight data and determine a sequence of events with certainty. It also gives organizations a secure, accurate record of their flights to evaluate performance and optimize operations.

Is your Autonomous AI-Driven Cybersecurity capable of protecting drones from spoofing and other types of GNSS tampering? 

The use of blockchain technology to register and identify drone within the SkyGrid system combined with our use AI-powered cybersecurity allows us to protect drones from all kinds of attacks, including spoofing and GNSS tampering.

We’ve heard a lot about the ways that drones can help during this crisis, but a significant roadblock to fully implementing many of these capabilities, like drone delivery, remote asset management, and large-scale disinfecting missions, is regulation. Do you think systems like SkyGrid can help get us on that path to regulations quicker? If so, in what ways?

Now and in the months ahead, drone technology can help deliver critical medical supplies, disinfect outdoor surfaces, and ensure compliance with local COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. In the United States, these missions often require a Part 107 waiver from the FAA. The FAA wants to ensure drone operators are equipped to minimize risks in the airspace and manage unforeseen circumstances. However, that’s difficult without the right technology in place.

Built on advanced technologies like AI and blockchain, SkyGrid’s airspace management system can help provide the assurances regulators need. Our intelligent system makes it easy for operators to navigate the complex airspace, comply with the airspace rules, and optimize their drone fleet. We’re committed to powering drone operations that can help support businesses, authorities, and first responders during this difficult time.

What are some key takeaways you would want someone interested in your platform to understand about SkyGrid?

Ultimately, we believe the future of autonomous aviation requires a more comprehensive system to ensure the safety and security of our airspace. This requires next-gen technologies like AI and blockchain that traditional UTM platforms aren’t equipped with today. These advanced technologies can help automate the safest routes, adapt flights as conditions change, and protect against malicious activity. They can also mandate airspace compliance and enable immutable audit trails. At SkyGrid, AI and blockchain technologies are core to our platform, enabling us to solve the industry’s biggest challenge integrating drones in the global airspace.