Globalization and the internet have made the world smaller. Gone are the days when it is a novelty to have pen pals. It is easy to see the benefits of having an interconnected world from a social standpoint. But in the global trade industry, the internet has no impact on the physical transportation of goods worldwide. The internet has made ordering goods, supplies, materials from various countries much easier. As a result, there is a strong demand for both global seaborne and airborne trade. Given the increasing growth in the number of ships and flights, safety became a fundamental concern.
Despite the number of precautions implemented by all involved parties, accidents do occur. When accidents occur, it is paramount for authorities to look for data that prevent such situations from happening again. Authorities retrieve these data from data recording instruments or more commonly known as 'black boxes'. However, there are numerous cases when black boxes got lost or were tampered with. As a result, investigating the cause of the accident can get difficult or in some cases, impossible.
Could Blockchain technology become the solution to these problems? Maybe.
Let's first take a look at both the aviation and shipping industry.
Shipping and Maritime Industry
Shipping is essential to the supply chain of numerous industries as it accounts for approximately 90% of all global trade. Any incident at sea results in large financial losses to all involved businesses and parties. Should there be any severe accidents, the risk of lives lost exists if the disaster is not attended to in a timely manner.
According to UNCTAD, the number of ships registered has been rising rapidly since the turn of the millennia. The shipping industry showing no signs of slowing down. Therefore, we can expect an increase in the number of ships. In the region of South China Sea, Indonesia, and the Philippines, Allianz Global Corporate Report reported that from 2007 to 2017, more than 252 shipping incidents occurred — the largest number of incidents by region in the world. In 2017 alone, there were 30 shipping losses in this region, the top rank in terms of shipping casualties and incidents globally. Losses included actual total losses of ships as well as constructive total losses recorded for vessels of 100 gross tons or over.
The Aviation Industry
There are currently at least 2,000 airlines operating more than 23,000 aircraft which provides services to over 3,700 airports. The growth of world air travel has increased at least 5% per year over the past 30 years and the annual growth in air travel is assumed to be twice the annual growth in the US GDP. The annual growth in global air traffic passenger demand has been positive from 2006 to 2018. Only in 2009 did the industry saw the worst demand decline in history. In 2017, the world’s airlines carried at least 4.1 billion passengers and created 65 million jobs to support aviation and related tourism. Around 10.2 million people within the 65 million jobs working directly in the aviation industry. Globally, the total number of planes, including freighter and passenger planes, is estimated to be 21,453 and is projected to grow to 47,987 by 2037.
The Importance of Data Recording Instruments or 'Black Boxes'.
We have touched on the high growth rate in both the aviation and shipping industries. With an increasing amount of sea and air traffic daily, it is impossible to avoid accidents and near misses. It also includes unforeseeable events such as the two flights from Malaysia airline (MH17 and MH370). Should these unforeseeable events happen in remote locations, be it in the ocean or unpopulated regions, locating the wreckage can be a major hurdle.
Aviation (Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder)
The aviation industry cannot downplay the importance of preventing and investigating given the meteoric growth in the number of flights. Most aircraft carry one or both of the following flight recorder devices. These devices are the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR). The flight data recorder is more commonly known as the "black box". The Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) regulates the use of FDR and CVR. The parameters the FDR must record include the flight path, speed, altitude, engine power and configuration of lift and drag devices. However, it also depends on the takeoff mass and type of aircraft. Further, the FDR must be able to resist fire, shock impact, crushing force, fluid and water immersion, penetration resistance and hydrostatic pressure.
Shipping (Voyage Data Recorder)
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) enacted Resolution MSC.333(90) (IMO Resolution) which requires the majority of vessels to install a Voyage Data Recorder (VDR). The resolution was enacted to aid in the investigation of marine accidents. These devices monitor and record vital sensory information from sensors aboard the vessel in a continuous loop. Whenever a maritime incident occurs, the VDR will be extracted and analyzed to discover the underlying causes and prevent recurrence. However, the VDR faces certain drawbacks - the main one being the requirement of physical access to the device before data can be retrieved. This proves to be a crucial challenge as there exist instances when the VDR is irrecoverable.
The Problems Faced by both industries
Studies consistently estimate that around 80% of causes in marine accidents are attributable to the human factor. A report by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty highlighted crew negligence and inadequate vessel maintenance as two increasing areas of risk.
Physical contact required
As a physical object, the data recording instruments require physical contact in order to retrieve it, should an accident happen. Installing location transmitters makes the retrieval process much easier. However, the signal has an effective range of only a few miles. Although, it still requires search teams to be almost directly on top of the wreckage to be able to identify it.
Never 100% retrievable
The recovery process can be arduous and expensive. In some instances, finding and retrieving the remains of planes and ships were impossible. These challenges can include natural factors such as the sheer vastness of the ocean and depth of the seabed. Not to mention also facing technical issues where ping signals are only available for a month and within a small effective radius. This requires extensive manual search and rescue efforts that are costly and time-consuming.
Insurance claim processes can face several issues as well especially in a non-fatal example such as a near-collision between two ships. The data recorded by the VDR is one of the sources used to determine liability. However, malicious actors could find ways and means to tamper with the data or device in a bid to reduce their liability. Tampering the VDR is a serious problem.
Here are several high-profile case examples where tampering has resulted in serious consequences:
- On 15 February 2012, two Italian marines aboard the Italian oil tanker MV Enrica Lexie fired upon the St. Antony off the coast of Kerala, India, killing two Indian fishermen.
- On 12 March 2012, the Singaporean cargo ship MV Prabhu Daya was involved in a collision off the coast of Kerala, India. In the investigation that followed, one of the crew was found to have inserted a USB flash drive into the VDR which resulted in a rewriting and loss of crucial data. Further, the software was found to have been infected with malware.
- On the SilkAir Flight 185 accident, investigators concluded that the CVR could have been disabled by pulling out the circuit breaker that is connected to the CVR.
- Cesar Llanto disappeared from ‘death ship’ in 2012 and Hector Collado was found dead on board two weeks later
How Blockchain can be the solution
Blockchain's traceability and tamper-proof nature provide a direct solution to the problems discussed above.
In a recent article, I discussed the possibilities of blockchain being hacked by Quantum Computing. It is the power of many users of blockchain that makes it immune to hacking. In any case, centralized legacy systems and databases are more likely to be cracked, altered and data misused than a (decentralized) Distributed Ledger Technology. Having a system that provides real-time location data can be immensely helpful as it reduces (or completely eradicates) the tampering possibilities to the black boxes. Should the global transport infrastructure adopts this system, it could harness the potential of blockchain technology.
No Physical Contact Needed
Installing a satellite that records real-time location data can prove to be a game-changer. The data can be remotely access which makes physical contact obsolete.
Enhance Retrievability Using Satellite Locating
The primary problem with current black box recovery is locating it. With a satellite, its last location data can be transmitted and be recorded on a blockchain almost immediately. Thus, making the process of locating the black boxes far easier. However, it is important to also note that, if the data has already been recorded on the blockchain, then there should be no need to physically retrieve the black boxes.
Is there already a blockchain solution out there?
No, there isn’t. However, there is a company that caught my attention in the last few weeks. Blocbox, a Singapore-based company, is attempting to solve the challenges of retrieving black box data. Combining the benefits of key technologies like artificial intelligence and big data analytics, Blocbox is creating the world’s first blockchain protocol for aviation and shipping safety.
The company is building a physical and lightweight device called the BlocBox Transmitter. This device shall be connected to existing recording instruments on planes and ships. It will continuously copy and transmit recorded data.
According to their whitepaper, they are also developing a satellite that will solely be used to ensure the constant transmission of data between relevant parties.
The Blockchain Revolution
Implementing blockchain technology certainly looks promising in both the aviation and shipping industry. However, it is important to remember that we are still at an early-stage of blockchain solutions. The majority of companies offering blockchain solutions are still developing. It is definitely an exciting period to be alive, watching the mass majority adopting emerging technologies.
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