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How websites track flights

How websites track flights

How websites track flights

As Nancy Pelosi departed Malaysia yesterday afternoon, millions of people tuned into Flightradar24 to get real-time updates on their flight route.

“In the 7 hours from takeoff to landing, 2.92 million people watched at least part of the SPAR19 flight, compared to 708,000 viewers at the same time it landed on the evening of August 2nd,” tweeted Flyradar24. SPAR19 is the flight number of August 2nd. In the evening, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, travels from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei.

SPAR19 is the most watched flight in history since the launch of the Flalyradar24 website. These are the most used free and instant flight routes in the world. In early February, a tour by US surveillance aircraft Global Hawk No. Forte12 received 60,000 views.

flight tracking technology

There are millions of websites around the world that specialize in flight tracking. However, many of them have some time lag even for the airline website due to the use of old radar technology and low accuracy.

Moreover, according to experts, the problem lies in the source of the information. Tracking information is usually available from airport websites and flight schedules, but cannot be viewed in real-time. The reason is that the staff does not update the status in a timely manner, even manually in many cases, and is therefore inaccurate and with a lot of delay. For example, a flight may be listed as “departed” on the website, but it’s actually still grounded because it’s waiting in line. At peak times, the time difference can be up to 40 minutes.

But sites like Flightradar24, FlightAware, Planefinder have a different approach: Receive information straight from the plane. To do this, they use Automatic Dependent Tracking-Broadcast, or ADS-B, which is found on most modern aircraft.

Simulation of a working aircraft tracking system.  Photo: Flugradar24

Simulation of a working aircraft tracking system. See: Flight Radar24

ADS-B is a fairly complex and sophisticated system that allows pilots to receive real-time terrain and weather updates. It is also responsible for sending GPS position from satellite, speed, altitude, aircraft model and flight number. This is the information required by the flight tracking website.

ADS-B was originally developed to help dispatchers locate aircraft more accurately than older microwave radars. This system helps pilots determine the status of the aircraft in flight.

The transmitted aircraft information also includes a squawk or response code. This code can be used to transmit encrypted information, e.g. B. 7700 in an emergency or 7500 in an attack. Therefore, any unexpected situation is fully controlled.

Below ground is another system with mast and RTL-SDR extensions. Data is transmitted over unencrypted radio waves at 1090 MHz at a rate of one megabyte. Information is sent from the aircraft to the ground every five seconds. Here the computer system analyzes and determines where the aircraft is located.

Flightradar24 currently has more than 25,000 ADS-B receivers on Tor decks or on volunteer rooftops worldwide. According to the company, it sends dozens of boxes, antennas and cables to volunteers every week.

Since the transmitted data is unencrypted, it only takes a little radio awareness for a person tracking the aircraft in action to tune into the 1090MHz band and tune into a radio. In a simple way, users can buy an ADSL receiver from e-commerce sites for $10-20, install the driver and connect it to a computer. At this point, you can choose to be a volunteer.

Flightradar24 ADS-B receiver.  Photo: Nubifer

Flightradar24 ADS-B receiver. See: nubifer

The data from thousands of receivers around the world is transmitted in real time to the servers of websites such as Flightradar24, so the position of the aircraft is very accurate. Even if a station loses internet connection, another station will fill in the missing data as the station covers a radius of up to 250-450 km.

The rest is just the screen surface. Users can track using the web or mobile app. Flightradar24 says it covers all US and European airspace above 30,000 feet and less in other remote areas.

ADS-B is considered a new aircraft tracking technology intended to replace the radar system used by Air Traffic Control (ATC) stations. It can also be combined with other flight tracking technologies to increase accuracy.

In addition, tracking can be done over a wide satellite network. Satellites can detect ADSB damage, e.g. B. in remote areas, seas and islands …

Popular flight tracking support services

FlightRadar24: Founded in 2006 by two Swedish aviation experts. The system currently has more than 10,000 active recipients and offers web, iOS and Android interfaces. The premium version costs between $1.49 and $3.99.

FlightAware: Launched in 2005, it was the first service to offer free flight tracking. However, the data collected by ADS-B was only seen in 2013. The system also has over 10,000 active recipients. FlightAware has a slightly more intuitive design than Flightradar24, but is said to have more features. Besides the free version, the app has a paid version starting at $20.

Planefinder: This service currently has about 2,000 active recipients in the system. Compared to the above two platforms, Planefinder offers more features in its free version. The premium version of the app starts at $5.99.

OpenSky Network: This network was launched in 2012. Developed by Swiss scientists. The information collected is for scientific research and non-commercial purposes. More than 500 recipients are currently active in the OpenSky system.

Bao Lam

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