Airmap, with its low-altitude airspace management platform for drones, continues to garner international market share and new investment, but some uses for its digital certificates raise questions about their role in future airspace regulation.
AirMap provides low-altitude navigational data and communication tools to the drone industry. In February 2017, they announced $26 million in Series B funding from Microsoft, Airbus, Qualcomm, Yuneec, and Sony, with Microsoft leading the round. At the same time, they announced a partnership to deliver their airspace services for SenseFly drones directly integrated with senseFly’s eMotion flight and data management software. This comes on the heels of many other partnerships and integration efforts with the likes of 3D Robotics, DJI, Hover, Intel, Kittyhawk, Lufthansa Systems, and The Weather Company.
WHAT’S COOL AND WHAT’S NOT
The Airmap smartphone app—available in the App Store and Google Play—is a very useful tool for drone operators. I first became acquainted with it when Hover began using it as the map for their app. I use it to determine (among other things) if the location where I want to fly has any flight restrictions. Flight restrictions include controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E), airports, heliports, and caution areas (like Temporary Flight Restrictions, wildfires, prohibited and restricted airspace, national parks, and marine protected areas). All of this of course just augments the geofencing systems that are already built into many drones (like the DJI GEO), which can lock you out of flying in restricted areas.
Another unique feature is Airmap’s Digital Notice and Awareness System (D-NAS), which allows users to communicate flight intentions to the more than 125 airports worldwide that accept digital flight notices. With D-NAS airports can view past and current drone flights, and communicate with drone operators.
At any rate—kudos to the managers and development team for their attention to detail and expanding capabilities. I suspect we’ll see more partnerships and integrations as a result of the AirMap Platform announced in August 2016. This developer platform offers Airmap airspace information and services capabilities for anyone who wants to integrate it with their own software for drones, mobile apps, or web applications.
BUT HERE’S THE THING
What I think has gotten lost in all the euphoria of recent announcements is the significance of Airmap’s announcement in December 2016 of Drone ID. Basically Drone ID is a digital certificate for your drone. Digital certificates are important tools used to secure the internet and other digital communications. The certificate establishes a pair of digital “keys” that are used to encrypt information shared between websites or devices and users. If you are an online shopper you are no doubt aware of browser security that ensures no one can “snoop” in on your transactions. The ‘S’ at the end of HTTPS stands for ‘Secure’. It means all communications between your browser and the website are encrypted. For this to work, an organization needs to install the SSL Certificate onto its web server to initiate a secure session with browsers. In Airmap’s case, the certificate is issued by them and DigiCert to enable secure connections with drones.
AIRMAP SAYS THE WAY IT WORK IS…
“Drone operators that register their drone online will receive a digital Drone ID certificate, including a unique, validated aircraft identity number that can be loaded onto the drone and shared with others in the drone ecosystem. That identity can be used to digitally sign information coming from the drone, enabling more efficient and secure communication from drone to drone, between drones and other aircraft, and with platforms providing airspace information and services, like AirMap.”
Hmmm. That’s not like a browser, a device, or a user. That’s other things and other people too.
Drone ID isn’t public just yet. It’s scheduled to be released in Q1 2017 for drones built with the Intel® Aero Platform for Developers. At that time, it will also be immediately available to other manufacturers and developers interested in the free service.
SO WHY DO YOU NEED THIS AND WHO BENEFITS?
Airmap says Drone ID is designed to “facilitate instant verification of an unmanned aircraft’s identity via a digital certificate, enabling authentication and encryption for drones.” Possible use cases include:
- Enabling encrypted video to be sent from a drone to a pair of first-person view (FPV) goggles
- Authenticating commands to each drone in an automated swarm
- Ensuring that ground communication is “talking” to the right device
- “Signing” information sent by a drone, such as data from an ADS-B transponder, to verify that it comes from the right drone and isn’t being spoofed
Airmap’s concept of using digital certificates for regulatory purposes first caught my attention when they released the white paper Robust and Scalable UAS Registration – Key Technology Issue and Recommendations in February 2016. Here are the opening paragraphs:
“The growing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) ecosystem requires accountability of operators, availability of airspace, and security of communications, particularly a confidential, authenticated, and accessible registration system. The FAA’s recent launch of a web-based registration service starts the UAS registration system in an excellent direction. Nevertheless, the scope and scale of the system’s future capabilities remains a concern. The anticipated growth and diversity of UAS use suggests the need for a globally-integrated system more capable than today’s.
A robust and scalable registration system considers the right technologies for its organization, registration information, queries, and security as the UAS ecosystem expands. This paper argues that careful selection of current Internet technologies and protocols can help enable the creation of a registration system that serves present needs but will also evolve as technology advances.”
But their service didn’t get included in the FAA’s small UAS registration, so now what?
Airmap has progressively worked together on an ongoing basis with regulators and other private companies on the various Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) projects. UTM refers to efforts to build an air traffic management infrastructure for drones worldwide, such as the NASA-FAA UTM project. That project is a collaboration between regulators and private industry partners like AirMap. You can read Airmap’s statement on UTM here.
One of Airmap’s ideas is to have their D-NAS system at the center with drone operators submitting digital flight plans to airports to receive authorization to fly. The other idea is to have their digital certificates be “the thing” that identifies the aircraft and its owner.
Right now all aircraft identification is achieved by physical means commonly referred to affixing an “N” number to the aircraft. It’s like the license plate on your car. It’s a semi-private number and it’s tied to your car’s registration. But cars and aircraft don’t have digital certificates.
Don’t get me wrong. I think using digital certificates for data security is generally a good idea. The data collected on the drone should be secured for lots of legal reasons—chain of custody being the most important. But that’s the data—not the drone aircraft itself—and that has nothing to with registration or remote identification of the aircraft for regulators or within an air traffic control system.
There are other solutions for aircraft identification that don’t involve certificates or a digitally enabled UTM system. For example, Vigilant Aerospace completed beyond line-of-sight flight testing of its new FlightHorizon collision avoidance system for drones at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in the Mojave Desert without a complex system. You can read about that here.
Airmap is not alone in their quest to be at the center of UTM. That’s because everyone assumes—and no one questions—that UTM is needed right now because “we’re heading fast towards a future in which tens of millions of drones fly billions of flights.” Airmap says it this way:
“Whatever future you can imagine for drones – from package delivery to flying cars – we are confident that the drone industry has the potential to surpass even the most bullish predictions.”
SORRY, WE DON’T SEE IT THAT WAY
I’ve written a detialed piece on why the drone network of tomorrow is farther away than you think. I make the case why airspace integration and management solutions for drones continue to garner new investment, but most options are based on fairytale scenarios and raise more questions than answers. I won’t repeat what it says but the bottom line is the vision of tens of millions of drones flying in the NAS alongside manned aircraft is vastly overstated. Our research shows that the vast majority of operations over next decade will be done largely single purpose drones in visual line of sight (VLOS), not beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
There are several Airmap competitors. Whereas Airmap clearly dominates the “Sky Atlas” space in the U.S., there are other companies that do the same thing. B4UFLY is the “sanctioned” FAA smartphone app. Altitude Angel is the choice in in U.K., and DRONE COMPLIER the choice in Australia.
Even with Airmap’s competition, many operators find a sectional chart to be more reliable, and this is why competent Part 107 operators won’t use these apps. Several drone lawyers tell us they get calls from their clients asking, “Can I fly here? Because Airmap says I can’t.” Over time, operators are finding that Airmap and B4UFLY say you can’t fly in a lot of places when in fact you can legally fly there. Perhaps the apps are overly restrictive to cover themselves legally.
One thing is for sure. What the FAA showcases in this video is a system of record based on an Esri ArcGIS platform. That platform provides the FAA and air traffic controllers everything from navigational charts to ensuring drones and planes can safely share the national airspace. The presenters indicate the drone data is provided by FAA’s Pathfinder Program partners. There’s no mention of Airmap.
In the digital certificate arena, Airmap seems to have no competitors. But I suspect when one of the Department of Defense (DoD) contractors like Lockheed Martin or Harris wakes up, they’ll just pull the right government levers to secure the business. You can see what Harris is doing already with BVLOS testing here. We’ll see.
Airmap thinks Drone ID with its extra authentication layer will bring security to drones—and for data, we think that’s a good idea, but not if it’s to secure a live link. There’s a valuable lesson to be learned from the management of Air Force drones. Major General James Poss writes about his experiences in It’s the Data Link, Stupid. He says:
“Generally, the less encryption a link uses, the more reliable it is. Encryption requires lengthy “handshakes” for link nodes to establish identity, then it uses encryption keys to establish a secure link. Too many things can get bungled with an encrypted link. The nodes can fail their handshakes, making it impossible to establish a link. The complicated keys must be the precisely the same on both sides and some human (probably named Murphy) inevitably keys the wrong key at some point.”
General Poss goes on to point we have not figured out how command and control can be performed reliably over the cellular network.
But let’s assume for a minute the “tens of millions of drones” volumes are true. If so, then it’s understandable that any company would want to be in the middle of an internet enabled UTM with a controlling piece—like aircraft registration via digital certificates. Surely at some point in the future it would produce a steady revenue stream. In the Internet world, there are various classes of digital certificates and they range in cost between $18 and $120. Most have to be renewed after two years. The simple math says if those hyped drone volumes come true and if regulators require certificates, then the digital certificate provider could stand to make a lot of money—perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year of implementation. So, ask yourself, who is benefiting from Airmap’s digital certificates? You as a drone operator, governments, or Airmap?