Blockchains Could Improve Aviation Docs for Pilots

The underlying technology behind cryptocurrency has potential benefits for pilots, technicians, and medical examiners, if a company will take the plunge.

We’ve told you that cryptocurrency is not an investment. But a blockchain—the underlying technology behind cryptocurrency—could help make life a lot easier for pilots. 

What is a Blockchain?

It’s a ledger, made visible to the entire world, and stored on a wide network of computers. Some brilliant encryption protocols protect the integrity of all the data on the blockchain, making it inordinately difficult for someone to alter any records after they’ve been logged.

Blockchains could make aviation more secure, the lives of pilots easier, and the FAA more effective.

The Fed on the Jumpseat

As an airline pilot, I occasionally get an aviation safety inspector or other FAA official riding on the jumpseat of my aircraft. Sometimes they’re onboard to look over our shoulders, though most of the time they’re just headed to work.

Every time an FAA official shows up on an airline flight deck, they’re obligated to inspect the medical and pilot certificates of the pilots on board. I always laugh as I pull out the crumpled piece of paper documenting my most recent medical exam, especially when I’m a jet as technologically advanced as the Airbus A220.

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The year is 2021. How are medical certificates still pieces of paper? How often does loss or destruction of these flimsy documents cause trouble? Does the FAA realize how easy it would be to forge one of those things? Isn’t there a better option?

Enter blockchain technology.

The FAA could create a blockchain to store the pilot and medical certificate data for all pilots. When a flight doc or pilot examiner completed an exam, they would use an encrypted signature to certify the results.

That encryption would protect this data against dangers ranging from forgery to household washing machines. An FAA inspector could use a proprietary mobile app to verify any given pilot’s credentials with just a few clicks. The FAA rep could even send a record of that inspection to headquarters with another click or two.

Pilot Certificates

The data on this blockchain could also streamline other parts of aviation. How many times have you been asked to provide a copy of your pilot certificate to rent aircraft from an FBO, as part of a job application, or when applying for aircraft insurance?

What if, instead of having to find a scanner or send pictures from your iPhone, the other person could verify your credentials on a publicly-visible blockchain? This data is already available on the FAA’s Airman Inquiry page, but using a blockchain could make it trustworthy in a way that could truly replace paper certificates.

If we wanted to, we could also encrypt the data stored in the blockchain. Many cryptocurrencies use an encryption trick called a hashing function that allows a third party to verify information you give them without needing to store that data in an unprotected format on the public ledger.

Logs for Aircraft and Pilots

Another archaic aviation practice that boggles my mind is our reliance on paper (or even simple electronic) logbooks for pilot flight hours and aircraft maintenance.

Sadly, I’ve heard of both pilots and mechanics who doctor old records to remove incriminating information, or insert things that never happened. I’ve also seen classified ads for aircraft with missing logbooks. Without any ability to verify compliance with required maintenance, airworthiness directives, etcetera, an aircraft with missing logs is worth far less than it should be. 

Using blockchain-based logs could solve all these problems.

Blockchains could make aviation more secure, the lives of pilots easier, and the FAA more effective.

In a cryptolog, each entry would have to be signed with the private encryption key of the A&P, pilot, or CFI in command of the operation. Once that entry is logged in a blockchain, there is no way to ever change it. Even better, a cryptolog system could use the airman (or associated FAA technician) database to verify the credentials of the signer to make sure their certificates were current before allowing the sign-off.

Since blockchains are stored on geographically distributed computers, these logs would also be safe from loss or destruction. It would also be easy for a potential aircraft buyer, hiring department, or flight examiner to verify an aircraft or pilot’s logs because, again, the information would all be stored in the open on a blockchain. A mobile phone app could filter the pertinent information and make it readable for an interested party.

Larger Implications

As an investor, I’m watching like a hawk for companies who can start incorporating blockchain technology into meaningful, everyday aviation applications. I won’t be surprised if big names like Jeppesen, Garmin, or Avidyne lead this charge.

I think we’ll also see smaller players appearing in these areas because blockchain technology is accessible to anyone with the education, skills, and determination to use it. I’m excited to see smaller companies challenge the big name players on blockchain development, just as companies like uAvionix and Dynon have started challenging the avionics market.

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