US Navy explores permissioned blockchain to track aircraft parts

Posted: 24 September 2018 4:14 pm
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It stands to be a huge improvement over the existing pen and paper systems.

One team at NAVAIR, the United States Naval Air Systems Command, is working with Indiana-based Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO) to explore the potential of its SIMBA blockchain for tracking aircraft parts, according to a recent press release.

SIMBA came to life as a product of a DARPA project which intended to apply blockchain principles to messaging in order to better monitor and verify the source of communications. But it also has some very clear applications in defence supply chains. Not only is supply chain management one of the most immediately promising blockchain applications, but defence supply chains in particular tend to be remarkably fragmented, opaque and downright primitive in some ways.

"In the defense industry, the way people buy and sell is by picking up the phone," said Deloitte veteran Eric Piscini to CoinDesk previously (when describing Zerv, a completely separate defence supply chain project).

In this case, the system to be replaced is one where parts are delivered and then tracked with pen and paper on a "scheduled removal component card," which is then manually entered into a database. The system is entirely manual and dependent on many different parties manually creating and maintaining their own siloed paper trails. The end result is that errors are inevitable, it's extremely difficult to trace individual parts and it's difficult to gather any kind of bird's eye view of where aircraft parts come from or go.

"Knowing the origin and history of flight-critical aircraft parts is a resource-consuming process that drives up the cost to operate military aircraft," the press release says.

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Tracking down the service history of individual components means sifting through the database and hoping everyone's done their paperwork correctly along the entire custody chain and every time a part undergoes maintenance.

ITAMCO was chosen due to its experience in data management in precision manufacturing settings as well as its existing strategic partnership with Notre Dame's Center for Research Computing. Beyond trialling a blockchain and getting a chance to understand the pros and cons of using one, the agreement also gives the Navy access to protocols for quickly and securely recalling large data sets.

"The ability to manage large data sets is not inherent to blockchain but these ancillary developments, along with managing life events and custody on a distributed ledger, will be a useful toolset among Navy, DoD and external industry partners," says the pleasantly detailed press release. "In return for helping the Navy understand how to use these exceptional software tools, ITAMCO will get to understand facets of the Navy and how the supply chain operates. The goal of the agreement is to develop a conceptual architecture for what a connected and visible supply chain could look like.

"The Fleet Support Team believes the increased visibility and traceability will help NAVAIR support the Naval Air mission with an increased emphasis on safety and at a lower cost than we currently can achieve.

"Conceptually developing consensus methods that maintain the integrity of the ledger while providing for all of the stakeholders will be a collaborative effort."

The key features of blockchain systems, whether private or public, lend themselves extremely well to supply chain management. And the eventual ability to more easily perform large scale data analysis on aircraft parts and other goods will probably lead to many further efficiency gains in the future as well.

Given the current outmoded state of the Navy's supply chain management, this might be the start of a fruitful experiment.

Disclosure: At the time of writing, the author holds ETH, IOTA, ICX, VET, XLM, BTC and ADA.

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