Tracking Airplanes From An Autonomous Boat

Airplane tracking systems like FlightRadar24 rely on people running radios that receive the ADS-B signal and forward the data on to them. That doesn’t work so well in the middle of the ocean, though: in spots like the mid-Atlantic,¬†there are no islands to speak of.

So, the service is now experimenting with a new approach: putting an ADS-B radio onto an autonomous boat. The boat is a Wave Glider from Liquid Robotics, an autonomous boat that harvests the power of the waves to run propulsion, guidance, and its payload. In this case, that payload includes an ADS-B receiver and a satellite transmitter that uploads the plane data to the service, where it is added to their mix of data sources. The boat is planned to spend the next six to eight weeks cruising about 200 miles off the coast of Norway, listening to the broadcasts of planes flying overhead and relaying them back to HQ. They will then be plotted on the live map in blue.

If you’re interested in building your own plane-trackers, we’ve got you covered, at least on land.

19 thoughts on “Tracking Airplanes From An Autonomous Boat

      1. But you are at the whims of the weather for such good RF propagation.
        At ground level with nothing blocking line of signt to the horizon, at Sea for example, and allowing for the curvature of earth the usual range would typically be:
        250 nautical miles ( 450 km ; 288 miles)

    1. This is really for FlightRadar24, not ATC. Most of the traffic over the NA reports their position to ATC via ADS-C (contract) that uses a satellite connection when out of range of land based radar and VHF receivers. Come November, when all the NAT tracks go to 30 nm spacing (instead of the previous 60 nm), you won’t be allowed to use the tracks without satellite ADS-C.

      Even though ground based radar will only see a couple hundred miles offshore, ATC has awareness all the way across the pond.

    1. That’s a good point. Sea buoys seems like the a much better long-term solution. These would be good if you need to increase coverage in an area on short notice, but surely having a stationary tethered object would be easier to maintain than a unit that has to keep exerting itself in order to stay in place.

    2. That’s a good point. Sea buoys seems like the a much better long-term solution. These would be good if you need to increase coverage in an area on short notice, but surely having a stationary tethered object would be easier to maintain than a unit that has to keep exerting itself in order to stay in place.

      1. The Wave Gliders convert wave motion to forward propulsion, so to do ‘station keeping’ we do circles around a point or swim into the current if it’s strong. We can go forward in a straight line indefinitely; it takes battery (solar) power to turn or operate the thruster for an extra burst of speed.

  1. What’s the commercial model for flightRadar24 — and what is the market for the data they collect? Presumably someone’s willing to pay enough to cover the deployment of these boats, but why? It’s not just plane spotters?

  2. Don’t over-water commercial aircraft (especially trans-Atlantic) send ACARS data over HF packet? If-so, maybe it’s encrypted (SITA-proprietary or Airline-proprietary data encryption lock-out maybe)? Hmm… I think it is also possible to sniff the ADS-X data down-linked to hubs from satellites (if the planes have the equipment) instead of receiving data directly from the aircraft (or is it up-linked from aircraft ACARS data?) I think I saw someone doing this sort of thing (ADS-X or ACARS data) on one of the RTL-SDR Web sites earlier this year. Experts in this technology (unlike me), please comment…

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