Secure, Cost-Effective Drone Connectivity with Web3

Sep 18, 2023Reading Time: 11 minutes

Yes, it is possible! You CAN make drone operation—and other mobile IoT devices—more secure and cost-effective with the help of Web3. Dr. Alexandra Mikityuk tells us how, in an interview.

Secure, Cost-effective Drone Connectivity with Web3

She imagines a future where drones will occupy the open air around us. They’ll swoosh around our heads and deliver blood for medical purposes, or pizza for the late shift worker in the factory. You know, the one who’s monitoring the robots over the internet.

IoT (Internet of Things) is entering every area of our lives. The possibilities are infinite for machines that communicate via the internet with each other and their operators. But with the fleets of autonomous vehicles growing and the scope of their tasks increasing, operating them becomes more complex, risky, and potentially dangerous.

Dr. Alexandra Mikityuk has taken on the challenge of simplifying and securing IoT connectivity. Her solution called Staex involves Web3 and blockchain technology.

Why blockchain and IoT need to team up

Most of us think of home appliances when we hear about IoT. Drones are little more than a fancy gadget. But industrial robots that operate in the thousands in factories are already real. And so are commercial drones in surveillance, homeland security and agriculture. All these are part of the Internet of Things. 

To understand why in the future blockchain and IoT might well be connected, we first need to understand the unique challenges the devices are facing.

What are the key challenges in operating IoT devices today?

  • Security

Connectivity to the internet is typically facilitated by network routers, which are a popular target for hackers. This makes IoT devices vulnerable to a variety of malicious attacks, including ransomware. “Today, devices have around 5,400 attacks per month. This is talking about them being on the Internet”, – says Alexandra.

  • Cost

Besides high vulnerability in the communication area, robot and drone operators face increasing costs. For example, “the cloud application frequently pings the device to keep the communication alive. And that costs money”. Cloud hosting, application management, and manual updates are expensive. On top of that, when you experience a security breach, the financial loss can be enormous.

  • Identification

In many scenarios, manufacturers operating IoT devices have a hard time identifying individual devices. Their robots are moving in large spaces using network roaming and dynamic IP addresses. Keeping track of which robot is where and recognizing each one is close to impossible.

  • Updates

Much of the updating is still carried out manually. This is time-consuming and leaves a lot of room for errors. In turn, it also drives up costs.

Automatic updates are often interrupted because of Wi-Fi roaming, which leads to errors and loss of operation time.

How does Web3 security work for IoT?

Using a distributed infrastructure eliminates many vulnerabilities in the communication. In the current setup, a hacker can bring an entire organization to its knees by hacking into a single device. In a Web3 setup, when a single node is compromised, the network isn’t affected. Accessing information is practically impossible. Dr. Mikityuk explains why.

“Every machine has its own key. And it knows the key of the machine that it is sending information to. So first and foremost, the communication between machines is always secured”. Without a key to the other machine, there’s no access.

Only the manufacturer has the digital key that allows communication with the autonomous vehicles out there. Communication is only possible with this specific key. So, instead of needing to secure countless routers and internet connections, you only need to keep the one key safe.

How can Web3 reduce costs and address the IoT challenges?

  • With Staex’s Web3-based solution, constant pinging is unnecessary. You pay a fixed monthly price based on your subscription package. This allows for much more clarity and control of cost management than with cloud-based services. 

  • Each device receives a unique identifier. Operators never have to guess and can easily monitor, track, and perform maintenance on specific machines. The information that the device provides, or needs to communicate, can only be accessed with a unique key connected to the identifier. Autonomous vehicles become almost impossible to hack and a lot easier to maintain.

  • Updates are performed autonomously when the system requires it, not manually. There’s no need to pause the machine’s operation or carry out any manual operation. Interruptions are no longer a problem, because there aren’t any. In a distributed network setup, there’s practically zero downtime.

How exactly does Staex use blockchain for IoT connectivity improvement?

In a nutshell, Staex is “a protocol on top of mobile communication that isolates machines. The most prominent use case today is remote access for the manufacturers themselves. The manufacturer’s machine talks to the fleet of machines — which can be as large as two million — , so it acts as a type of VPN”. Only, it’s cheaper and more secure.

“It’s basically a network layer with an application management. It’s a beautiful combination of things which, in this form, were hard to combine in the previous Internet”. Alexandra smiles, and I can’t help but do the same.

Another aspect of using blockchain for IoT is that there’s no middleman operating the system. Staex doesn’t host anything. It’s not a cloud-based solution, but a distributed Web3 platform.

Is Staex unique in creating IoT blockchain projects?

“Blockchains are amazing technologies and there are many great teams working on a variety of protocols. But you can’t easily connect most of it to existing legacy systems.” Alexandra is basically saying that the technology still only exists in its own isolated space. 

Staex’s solution breaks out of the Web3 bubble. “This is an interesting project that connects older assets to the Web3 economy. So it’s not all shiny NFTs. It’s a very grounded, applied business use case”. Dr. Mikityuk explains and continues with an example. “For instance, Staex offers customers the possibility to use only their own machines with no need for using cloud services, etc.”

“Staex helps IoT manufacturers manage simple edge applications like protocol translation or blockchain payments for their machines. This is what Staex is doing with the RISE project, helping companies use Web3 technologies to add new revenue streams to their existing assets, making it a compelling business case.” We’ll get to that later.

Connecting drones, IoT, and Web3 

How do you contribute to building a Web3-based drone infrastructure?

In the drone industry, Staex partners with two additional companies, Vantage Towers AG and Electric Visionary Aircrafts GmbH (EVA).

Together they create drone highways or drone corridors. We are talking about an organized infrastructure for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). “Today we have highways for cars, and that’s a very structured approach. So we are creating the same for drones”. The coolest thing is, “we actually piggyback on existing infrastructure: the existing telco-towers.”

But what does a drone highway look like? The idea is to set-up drone take-off and landing- stations in strategic locations and create commercial flight routes for delivery drones. These will run in close proximity to Vantage Towers’ existing radio towers to ensure seamless communication. EVA provides the specific equipment such as the landing pads and charging stations themselves. Staex contributes the reliable and secure software layer for a dynamic network. 

Using existing structures like the communication towers allows for significant cost savings. For Vantage Towers, operating and maintaining 80,000 telco-towers across Europe, this offers potential business benefits. “There are always lots of debates in Germany about who’s paying for the infrastructure. And telcos have to go green.” This solution kills these two birds with one stone. It’s a true win-win situation.

What is your new Web3 and drones project, RISE?

Today drones pay for landing and charging. This can involve many parties: the owner of the land where the landing pad is located, the infrastructure provider who operates the landing pad, the provider of the charging station, and the electricity company providing the power. Not to forget the network and/or software provider.

“We were talking with the partners about the billing and how to implement it. This is when, as a blockchain pioneer, I looked at the team and I said, ‘Blockchain! We are here to bring some blockchain to the industry. Let’s do this!” Her face lights up as she iterates these words.

The Staex-Team from left to right: Paksy Plackis-Cheng, Elvina Kulinicenko, Ivan Gankevich, Dr. Alexandra Mikityuk

Her team immediately understood the potential of blockchain in simplifying the process through micro-payments. Instead of the infrastructure provider making contracts with hundreds of drone manufacturers, and the drone operator managing payments to X different service providers, it would all happen autonomously. It can all be taken care of through smart contracts.

Blockchain and drones, a completely new idea

Dr. Mikityuk remembers another spontaneous reaction from her team to the blockchain idea. “How legal is that?” It’s an understandable and justified question, but she said, “Listen, we have to start, we have to jump in, and we will get amazing support together with Lisk.”

“Also, we have a startup support hub from the government. And our contact there told me, ‘Look, you do whatever you need to do. You can come to us and we try to make it work. So it gave me a lot of trust.”

The idea for a new project was born: RISE. Each drone, each station, and each landing place have a unique ID. When the drone lands on a specific platform, the two devices identify each other and all related payments are initiated. Everyone gets paid instantly. Alexandra’s team is building the new application on the JavaScript-based Lisk SDK as part of the Lisk Accelerator program.

“So the idea is that we don’t have to hire in the future an army of people that is checking all these transactions. It happens securely and autonomously.” Cheers Alexandra and adds another important point. “The transactions are identified and if there is some kind of dispute, everybody can actually get to the log file and understand what happened. This is the exact idea of automating these things. I personally think this is the power of blockchain. You can just put it inside the infrastructure and be sure it’s secure. Nobody is manipulating it.”

Getting started with Web3 and IoT

Why did you decide to get into IoT in the first place?

“I lost a bit of the nativity of the world when I learned how smart and organized hackers are. This was while I was doing my PhD in Informatics Security at the Technical University of Berlin. Let’s take botnet attacks, for example. Over time, they build up an army of, I call them ‘intelligent machine zombies’—, sensors and whatever IoT out there. And they use all this power to blackmail a bank, an organization, or a city.”

Alexandra also understood that a common security engineer, working nine-to-five in an IoT device company, can’t be expected to carry the responsibility on their shoulders. Even worse, there’s a lot of profit to be made from such attacks and the incentive is unfortunately not on the side of the good guys.

The volume of the cybercrime business is expected to reach 10 trillion dollars in 2025. Ransomware-as-a-Service is a real business model. Anyone can order and carry out a ransomware attack, even with no programming or developer knowledge.

Alexandra says she feels fortunate to have collected experience in a variety of verticals, touching on many fields where IoT is used. It involves intelligent machines, machines that have an operating system, and “hackers really love them. Today, it’s mostly networking routers because they have processing power that can easily be reused and misused.”

Web3 for drones and other autonomous vehicles

Few of us are aware of the extent of malicious activity on the internet, especially that targeting OT (operational technology) and IoT networks. There’s a tremendous, constant threat to drones, robots, or other autonomous vehicles. The same goes for critical infrastructures, water supplies and manufacturing facilities, anything that uses OS-based sensors to connect to the internet.

“The kind of a-ha moment for me was when I was working for Deutsche Telekom (DT). The DT has been impacted and also a variety of other telecoms have been suffering severe attacks. The manufacturers of these things [IoT devices], then had to replace them in the field and it’s a huge financial loss for everyone. And It’s really complicated to regain the trust of the customer.”

What made you choose blockchain security for IoT as a solution?

All this happened around the time, when blockchain was coming up in Berlin. There were a lot of meetups where you could learn how to set up nodes and all kinds of hands-on information. Alexandra recalls that it was mostly ‘street knowledge’ gathered through networking. “Web3 became the manifestation of knowledge transformation” and it was (and still is) mostly happening in person.

“This is when I got in touch with Web3 and I actually saw the silver bullet of a solution.” Alexandra took advantage of the hype and learned everything she could about blockchain. Till today, she believes in the distributed network concept and that it can solve many issues arising from (or in) Web2.

Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about blockchain. The Web3 expert believes they exist because there’s been a lot of compromising. The desire for convenience has dragged people away from the original values. This has caused confusion, insecurity, and ineffective software solutions. Now that the hype is over, we can go back to the original concept. She describes herself as very pragmatic, but is also dedicated to the distributed model.

“We at Staex are very cautious about this and each time people try to pull us back for convenience sake, we still push for the fully distributed architecture because we know that this is the foundation.”

Alexandra is convinced that it’s not Web3 per se, that is responsible for many of the issues. She believes that the connection between Web3 and Web2, specifically the compromising on the distributed and decentralized structure, causes inefficiency and errors.

Blockchain platform for IoT and drones: Lisk

Image from the Staex blog

Why did you decide on Lisk for your Web3 for drones project?

“I believe in time.” Alexandra declares. “Lisk has already been established for quite some time. I remember them from my old Telekom times. I think it is a sort of indicator, especially in this crazy blockchain world, if a platform runs for quite some time. They have amazing projects, they are doing a lot of work regarding promoting blockchain. And it was a very important indicator for me that they haven’t disappeared.”

“They have seasoned people, they went through lots of learnings, and in the community, we can make it work together.” Dr. Alexandra Mikityuk has experience. She loves tech, and she loves machines—especially the autonomous ones. Staex isn’t her first startup, and this isn’t her first experience with getting external funding and support for innovative projects such as RISE.

Before starting Staex, she had tried other startups— one with a grant from Germany, another venture was bootstrapped. There wasn’t much of an infrastructure or startup community in Berlin at the time.

Space is the next frontier for Web3 drones

Alexandra feels responsible for bringing what she has to offer to the world. “I gathered this information and these learnings and when I talk to my friends and others, I realize most people have not been exposed to this type of critical knowledge. I am in a unique position and feel responsible to at least start talking about it and sharing what I learned.”

She has many ideas for additional projects in the future. She says, the most interesting is working out a new addressing system for machines on the internet because the new IP addresses that are being rolled out right now can still leave machines vulnerable.

In addition, Dr. Mikityuk and her team at Staex are looking into space applications, “because the satellites also have to communicate and receive a lot of information from earth.” This makes Staex extremely relevant.

You see, we can expect some very exciting solutions. And we can join Alexandra in the hope that, “through these secure and reliable systems we can maintain human agency over machines.”