Blockchain tech may thwart hacks of automated drone fleets

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To skeptics who’ve seen one too many meltdowns arising from too-good-to-be-true finance market innovation, blockchain technology has earned a suspicious reputation through its role in cryptocurrency schemes. But blockchain may benefit from positive rehabilitation if – as researchers now suggest – it can play a role in thwarting attempted hacks of automated drone fleets.

A new study published in IEEE Transactions on Robotics explores the use of the tech in fending off attempted attacks of robotic systems seeking to create chaos – or worse. In their mouthful of a paper, Bilinear Dynamical Networks Under Malicious Attack: An Efficient Edge Protection Method,” researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Polytechnic University of Madrid describe how integration of blockchain in navigation systems of autonomous drones or self-driving road vehicle fleets could fend off attempted hacks. The very function of the tech that makes it so essential to iffy-reputed cryptocurrency operators may also position it as an ideal guard dog against attacks on robotic craft working in formation.

“The world of blockchain beyond the discourse about cryptocurrency has many things under the hood that can create new ways of understanding security protocols,” Eduardo Castelló, a Marie Curie Fellow in the MIT Media Lab and lead author told MIT News.

The approach would function by identifying bad information hackers feed into the automated drone fleet’s navigation system, then isolate and mute it via blockchain.

Blockchain to the rescue of hacked automated drone flees?

Future aerial and ground craft operating together will follow the commands of lead vehicles. Due to the self-enclosed nature of information within each link of a blockchain – say, individual drones flying together in response to an emergency situation – hackers will likely target a single lead vehicle for programming in errant directions designed to lead the others astray. Going after all of those leaders would be very difficult, and probably provoke a quick breakup of the entire chain.

The reason is, altering any information in one link also changes the coded form of its legitimately entered data – known as a hash ­– which is a fundamental part of its connection to the wider chain. Any change to the hash will make that drone and its data appear suspicious – kind of like a flying cryptocurrency – to the other links. They will then tune the bad apple out and defer to more dependable commands.

Blockchains, meanwhile, assign tokens to constituent links, and those are deducted when informational “transactions” are flagged as errant. Once an infiltrated lead craft in an automated drone fleet loses its tokens for dishing too much dirty data, it is silenced in the network completely – essentially bankrupted by too many fines for cutting dodgy information deals.

“We envisioned a system in which lying costs money,” Castelló says. “When the malicious robots run out of tokens, they can no longer spread lies. So, you can limit or constrain the lies that the system can expose the robots to… Since we know how lies can impact the system, and the maximum harm that a malicious robot can cause in the system, we can calculate the maximum bound of how misled the swarm could be.”

The somewhat notorious role some people view blockchain playing in cryptocurrency activity notwithstanding, Castelló says the tech may well prove vital to making sure the proliferation of automated drone fleets flying a wide array of future missions aren’t hacked to become weapons against public well-being.

“When you turn these robot systems into public robot infrastructure, you expose them to malicious actors and failures,” he says. “These techniques are useful to be able to validate, audit, and understand that the system is not going to go rogue. Even if certain members of the system are hacked, it is not going to make the infrastructure collapse.” 

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