Contactless Asset Management in the Avionics Industry With Blockchain
Tackling the Issues of Documentation and Certification by Using Blockchain Technology
October 13, 2021
Written by:
Dietmar Kofler
Reading Time:
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7
min

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

The aerospace industry is challenged to keep track of thousands of parts, including their airworthiness status and sharing this information within the industry. Issues with documentation can lead to disruption, unnecessary expenditure, or even contribute to accidents. Specific aerospace issues include compliance to airworthiness directives, the fitting of incorrect parts, skipping inspections, or the use of insufficiently trained personnel.

Aircraft usually change owner or operator up to six times, creating more opportunities to forget, mishandle, or destroy paper records. Issues with existing systems and processes often occur due to manual data transfers, different import & export interfaces of proprietary software, but also paper scans with or without OCR as well as manual copy & paste. The global system inefficiency leads to redundancies across different systems, which inevitably become out of sync leading to massive resource wastage.

THE SIMPLE IDEA TO BUILD A SOLUTION FOR A COMPLEX PROBLEM

One of the main ideas that lead Tom Fürstner to create RIDDL&CODE was that connecting physical objects to the blockchain unleashes the boundless potential to improve our lives.

The blockchain’s immutability is the critical feature here. Indeed, once a part exists on the blockchain, its identity becomes irrefutable and above all, unique. Any critical information associated with it is stored forever. Less important information can be stored off-chain.

SO HOW DOES IT WORK?

A range of crypto-enabled tags is used to identify parts uniquely. They vary in physical format — from a paper-thin sticker to a fully rigid hard tag.

The price of the tag remains insignificant compared to that of the part to which it is attached. Attaching a non-removable crypto-enabled tag to the part, and programming it with a cryptographic secret, creates a unique blockchain identifier. This new digital entity can be tracked and traced from anywhere. Only verifiable industry participants will be able to handle physical parts and thus change the tracking status. The visibility of the whole system is adjustable to the needs of any specific ecosystem. It can even be altered to suit circumstances. On a military aircraft, for example, there might only be permissioned technology. In contrast, a commercial airline might make some data fully public.

Any new, blockchain-based system must be able to connect to ERPs and other traditional information systems.

Several features are combined to make tags unique, authentic, and secure. They include the use of secured printers and the crypto architecture of embedded microelectronics.

Associating digital twins on the blockchain with avionics parts hampers counterfeiters that still plague the industry. Indeed, any stakeholder can then more easily identify and eliminate counterfeit parts.

So, what is unique about the tag? It is an RFID tag. Here is a quick update for those who need help with these acronyms because we probably need to dig a bit deeper than just what they stand for.

ALPHABET SOUP DECRYPTION

In the space where we connect physical objects to the Blockchain, there are some more acronyms to spice up your new Alphabet soup to stay warm as winter approaches. RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification and is the overarching technology term in this domain. As with most radio protocols, different frequencies are used, and LF, HF, UHF stand respectively for Low, High, and Ultra-High Frequency. Near Field Communications or NFC is a market name for an HF version of RFID developed for — as the name indicates — communication in the near field, i.e., at short distances between the tag and the reader. Long-range RFID is also known as RAIN RFID. The RAIN Alliance brings together industry players promoting the use of UHF technology.

In different versions, RFID has been globally deployed for many years. Its NFC variant has only recently gained wide market acceptance, as most of us can now, for example, use contactless payments systems.

ENERGY HARVESTING

Let’s look a bit deeper into how wireless technologies from our partner NXP enable us to bring best-in-class solutions to address the avionics challenge.

An RFID tag contains, among other things, an antenna and memory storage. An RFID reader is required to identify and authenticate the tag, as well as to access the data. An exciting feature of RFID is that the tag can be passive and have no power supply. The electromagnetic field produced by the reader can be harvested by the tag’s antenna to provide power.

If you remember your very first science lessons — and hold on even if that’s a bad memory — you’ll remember that electric motors don’t directly transform electricity into movement. They first have to send a current through a coiled wire to create an electromagnetic field. Only after that first step can we create kinetic movement. Well, consider energy harvesting as the opposite of that first step. When we move a coil of wire through the various electromagnetic fields produced by our devices, a small current can be generated. This current is enough to power small devices to do simple things. Low and High-frequency communications, including NFC, operate this way. The Ultra High Frequency we rely on here uses inductive coupling, as shown in the diagram below.

You may have heard of how Moore’s law used to double the processing power of computer chips about every 18 months. The trend has slowed down in terms of processing power, but not so in a more critical aspect for us. For the next few years, we’ll see the power consumption of microprocessors continue to decrease significantly with every new generation. In barely a decade, the processing power required by say your current mobile phone will be available on infrastructure powered from energy harvested out of thin air.

The radio frequencies used are the critical factor in determining the distance from which the tags can be read. Low and High frequencies (LF and HF) require the reader to be maximally within a meter of the tag, and in most practical cases, only within centimetres. However, Ultra High Frequency (UHF) enables distances in meters between the reader and the tag.

NFC is based on the RFID protocols and extends two-way communications features. In every-day use today, NFC is limited by the reader’s power within mobile phones, so it is better suited for contactless communications within an inch or two. It is ideally suited for contactless payment solutions.

THE LEADING EDGE OF RADIO TECHNOLOGY

Now that NFC and RFID have no more secrets let’s look a bit deeper into unique kinds of secure RFID tags with our partner and global leader NXP.

Traditional RFID tags give unique digital identity to physical objects and make that identity wirelessly available even at distances of more than 10 meters. But they do not meet all of the demanding requirements of modern, security-sensitive applications.

Think of an airplane engine that has been in service for over a decade, flying for three different commercial airlines across four continents that is now for sale. Identity “documents” for this engine can claim it to be the engine “ABC 123”, made by a particular manufacturer, in a given year, and having X number of flight miles behind it. But how can the buyer be confident that this engine is indeed what is described? That is where crypto authentication comes in: it allows for that identity to be securely verified with immutable blockchain records.

NXP has, over the last few years, introduced a secure range of microchips to bring cryptographic authentication to RFID tags. This new generation of products enables us to authenticate parts wirelessly with a secure unique digital identity.

The new range of RFID microchip is products branded “DNA,” indicating that, like with the human DNA, these products can be trusted to offer their true identity.

NXP Semiconductors is the recognized leader in RAIN RFID and security technologies. NXP’s DNA family brings much needed cryptographic security to the digital identifiers, which are crucial in the blockchain universe. Mahdi Mekic is Marketing Director for RAIN RFID Solutions with NXP. He told us,

We have combined best-in-class RF performance with cryptographic authentication in NXP’s UCODE DNA. The platform is ideally suited to creating crypto-enabled secure anchors for blockchain solutions.” He went on to note that we share the view that it is critical to first secure the input data. He added that “RIDDLE&CODE has developed a new and truly secure implementation leveraging our solution to create secure identities for end nodes. These can then be trusted to provide the input into the blockchain.

WRAPPING UP

  • RFID improves efficiency in aircraft maintenance, supply chain, and logistics.
  • The authenticity and airworthiness status of a part can be verified on-demand from anywhere in the world.
  • The blockchain provides immutable ownership records, which are a reliable proof of authenticity that will enhance the market.
  • Thanks to Blockchain technology, we can now preserve privacy and deliver transparency at the same time.
  • RFID tags with crypto authentication ensure that aviation parts are securely, digitally, and wirelessly identified and processed.
  • Blockchain provides the highest level of protection and security standards available in any industry.


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