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US government says blockchain could make drones safer

Always be wary when you see two technology buzzwords in one sentence. But the US Department of Transportation (DOT) makes some interesting cases for why the secure ledger tech of blockchain could help make drones safer and more accountable.

In essence, there’s a lot to keep track of with drones, especially commercial drones that are carrying packages across the sky. So the DOT makes the case in a new paper for how sharing that information securely could keep everyone better informed.

Quick refresher on blockchain. It’s essentially an encrypted database that exists in multiple synchronized copies. You can’t add or change something in this database without agreement from all the parties that maintain it. As such, it’s theoretically safe from forgery or other tampering. A second benefit to blockchain is that, since all the parties hold a copy, they all have ready access to the data stored on the ledger.

Drones on the blockchain

So what information about drones could go in here? The DOT suggests several, such as a blockchain-based flight recorder. Flight data would be streamed to and recorded on the blockchain. If there’s been an accident or near miss, regulators would know they have the true, unaltered report of where and how the drone flew. They wouldn’t have to request it from the drone operator, who might have incentive to fudge the data. And it’s not just for mishaps. Insurers might want access to the data to judge how safely a company that it underwrites has been operating its drone fleet.

The paper has one especially dramatic example: organ transplant deliveries by drone. (This has occurred before, and some healthcare delivery projects are talking about doing more.) With blockchain, everyone involved could have up-to-the-second info on all aspects of the operation. This includes recording the drone’s status. Where is it currently? Where’s it headed, and at what speed? How are the battery and other critical readings?

Likewise, there could be stats on the organ itself. How long has this, say, kidney, been outside the body of the donor? What temperature is it at? Both the hospital providing the organ and the one expecting it would have constant updates on its status. A team could be kept ready on the receiving end to get the organ and patient into surgery as soon as possible.

Photo: Ricardo Gomez Angel/Unsplash



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Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @SeanCaptain.