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Let's collaborate to explore blockchain: SITA's 'Aviation Blockchain Sandbox'

Published on  23 August by Barry McLaughlin , Lead Architect, Advanced Technology Office, SITA Lab
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Welcome to the first of several posts on SITA’s Aviation Blockchain Sandbox, our major industry research project to explore the potential of blockchain.

Over the next few months my colleagues and I will be covering a range of topics – some business-orientated and some quite technical. To start though, I should explain what the Aviation Blockchain Sandbox is, why we’re doing it, and the first steps to get this off the ground.

‘Blockchain for one’ doesn’t make sense

Blockchain is one of the most hyped technologies out there. Across many industries, aviation included, people are doing their own research to see if blockchain can work for them and what use cases make sense. At SITA Lab, we’ve been doing our own R&D into blockchain over the past two years.

However, while interesting as a technology, ‘blockchain for one’ doesn’t really make sense. When there’s only one organization involved, you can typically build solutions cheaper and easier with standard database technology.

Where blockchain can truly offer something new is when you have:

  • More than one organization involved
  • Some level of distrust between the parties
  • A desire to get rid of ‘the middleman’

The challenge: a multi-organizational blockchain network

The challenge of setting up a multi-organization blockchain network is not trivial. Who sets it up? How do we interact with it? What governance needs to happen? Who maintains the network? How do we get started? Enter the SITA Aviation Blockchain Sandbox.

Accelerating the understanding of blockchain technology

SITA Lab is building a cloud-based blockchain network and we’ll be allowing industry partners to access it. We’re building some reference-distributed apps and making them available on the network. To make it easier for everyone to get started, we’ll provide some Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and a Software Development Kit (SDK) to allow different aviation organizations to interact.

We hope the sample distributed apps will be of use in themselves, but their main purpose will be to act as a template to help people create their own distributed apps on the network. Longer term, we would encourage other parties to set up their own blockchain nodes and to join these into the network to create a true blockchain consortium.

Cloud-based blockchain network

What kind of distributed apps make sense within aviation?

The short answer is we won’t know for sure until we try. But we see a number of areas in which we think blockchain may have a role to play:

  • Flight Information
  • Passenger counting/tracking
  • Baggage
  • Cargo
  • Aircraft provenance and maintenance
  • Identity management
  • Loyalty

Working collaboratively and building out proof-of-concept apps, we should be able to figure out which of these use cases makes sense and which don’t. FlightChain is a great example of a use case. Here SITA Lab teamed up with British Airways, Heathrow, Geneva Airport and Miami International Airport to demonstrate how flight information can be stored on the blockchain to provide a single source of truth and shared control of data by airlines and airports. If some don’t make sense, then that’s also a good outcome. It’s better that we find out quickly and cheaply what the technology’s potential and limitations are and then we can all move on.

First steps - flavors of blockchain

One of the first steps in moving blockchain out of PowerPoint and into the real world is choosing the platform on which to run it. Luckily there are only a few thousand blockchain platforms to choose from :-) ! The picture shows the different types.

Specialized  vs generalized

Some blockchain platforms are specialized and serve a single use case – Bitcoin is the most famous example. Its sole purpose is to allow digital money to be efficiently transferred without the need for a centralized financial institute.

In theory, these platforms can be modified (many are open source) to handle transfer of any asset. But in reality, they’re not really suited to more generalized use cases.

The other major type of blockchain is a generalized one that supports different types of transactions via ‘smart contracts’. Ethereum was the first and is probably the best known of these. The smart contracts are software applications that run on the blockchain and can interact with its data. 

Different types of blockchain platform

Public vs permissioned

The second categorization is public versus permissioned. In a public blockchain, such as Bitcoin, anyone can join the network and can transact more or less anonymously.  In a permissioned network, all interaction is via known actors and rules can be defined around who can transact and who can access information on the blockchain.

We see that a permissioned, smart-contract type blockchain is best suited to applications in the aviation industry. We don’t foresee that there will be many (or perhaps any?) scenarios where we would want anonymous users transacting with airlines and airports - updating the arrival gate of a flight, for example!

Criteria for Platform Choice

Even having settled on a permissioned, smart-contract based platform, that still leaves a large number of platforms to choose from. So we needed to get fussier. These are the things we looked at when deciding:

  • Size/stability of the organization or community behind the platform
  • How active development is on the platform
  • Language choices available for creating smart contracts
  • Quality of the documentation
  • Availability and quality of support tooling
  • Flexibility in configuring the platform network

There are many valid contenders: Ethereum, EOS, Fabric, NEO, Sawtooth and more, but in the end, we had to choose one.

And the winner is…

We’ve chosen to go with Hyperledger Fabric because in our eyes it ticks most of the boxes. It’s backed by the Linux foundation and has a very active development community behind it (IBM, Intel, Cisco, Accenture and many more are all contributing). There are a number of choices for smart contract development (Go, JavaScript, Java) and the documentation and support tooling is quite mature (by blockchain standards at least).

What if we’re wrong? Then we’re wrong and we’ll pick another platform and try again. There’ll likely be another few by then.

We’re welcoming industry players now

As I  said when we announced our Aviation Blockchain Sandbox, at our Customer Innovation Forum in June, we invited interested industry players , at no cost,  to join us. SITA’s role is to bring together different stakeholders to work out how our industry can benefit from new technologies. Blockchain is a perfect example and a great opportunity. 

We’re building a cloud-based blockchain network and are inviting our industry partners to join it. 

So if you’re interested, why not join us? You can request access here at Developer.aero

For more

SITA invites airline industry stakeholders to join international blockchain research project

FlightChain: 'smart contracts' for shared control of data?

More about our Aviation Blockchain Sandbox at Developer.aero

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