“Alexa, what plane is that?”

We’ve all probably done it — gazed up at a passing jetliner and wondered where it was going and what adventures its passengers were embarked upon. While the latter is hard to answer, the former just got a bit easier: just ask Alexa what the plane is.

Granted, [Nick Sypteras]’s Echo Dot isn’t quite omniscient enough to know exactly what plane you’re looking at. His system benefits from the constraints offered by the window of his Boston apartment — from the video below, we’d guess somewhere in Beacon Hill or the West End — that offers a view of the approach to Logan Airport. An RTL-SDR dongle receives the ADS-B transmissions from all aircraft in the vicinity, and a Raspberry Pi does a lookup, picks the closest plane, and scrapes the departure and arrival airports from FlightRadar24. Alexa does the rest, but we have to confess that hearing “Boeing seven hundred eighty-seven” rather than “seven eighty-seven” would drive us nuts.

If you don’t have the limited view of an airport approach that makes [Nick]’s hack workable, maybe a plane-spotting robot camera would work better for you.

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Tracking Planes with an ESP8266

While there are apps that will display plane locations, [squix78] wanted to build a dedicated device for plane spotting. The ESP8266 PlaneSpotter Color is a standalone device that displays a live map with plane data on a color TFT screen. This device expands on his PlaneSpotter project, adding a color display and mapping functions.

First up, the device needs to know where planes are. The ADS-B data that is transmitted from planes contains useful data including altitude, velocity, position, and an identifier unique to the aircraft. While commercial services exist for getting this data, the PlaneSpotter uses ADS-B Exchange. You can set up a Raspberry Pi to record this data, and provide it to ADS-B Exchange.

With the plane data being received from the ADS-B Exchange API, it’s time to draw to the screen. The JPEGDecoder fork for ESP8266 is used for drawing images, which are fetched from the MapQuest API as JPEGs.

Finally, geolocation is needed to determine where in the world the PlaneSpotter is. Rather than adding a GPS module, [squix78] went with a cheap solution: WiFi geolocation. This uses identifying information and signal strengths from nearby WiFi access points to determine location. This project uses a public API by [Alexander Mylnikov], which returns a JSON object with longitude and latitude.

This project demonstrates what the ESP8266 is capable of, and brings together some neat techniques. If you’re looking to geolocate or display maps on an ESP8266, the code is available on Github.

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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.

Planespotter Spots Planes, Tracks Destinations

Ever looked up in the sky and wondered where all of those planes above you were going? [Daniel Eichhorn] no longer has to, thanks to his ESP8266-based Planespotter.

He built this nifty device to grab the details of the flights he sees taking off from Zurich airport. It’s a neat build, running on an ESP8266 that receives ADS-B data from ADS-B Exchange. This service allows you to query the ADS-B data with a specific location.

[Daniel]’s plane tracker sends a query to ADS-B exchange for flights in his location and below a certain height (so he sees ones that are just taking off), then displays the received information on the OLED screen.  [Daniel] says that a display-only version will cost you about $20, while the full version that also receives and shares data with the ADS-B Exchange will cost you about $50. That’s a lot cheaper than a plane ticket…

GNU Radio for Space (and Aircraft)

GOMX-3 is a CubeSat with several payloads. One of them is a software defined radio configured to read ADS-B signals sent by commercial aircraft. The idea is that a satellite can monitor aircraft over oceans and other places where there no RADAR coverage. ADB-S transmits the aircraft’s ID, its position, altitude, and intent.

The problem is that ADS-B has a short-range (about 80 nautical miles). GOMX-1 proved that the signals can be captured from orbit. GOMX-3 has more capability. The satellite has a helical antenna and an FPGA.

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Art for Planespotters

We don’t know art, but we know what we like. And this gizmo by [Johan Kanflo] is right up our alley.

First, [Johan] gutted an old Macintosh Classic computer and stuffed a Raspberry Pi inside. Now this is not really a new idea, but [Johan] did a very nice job with the monitor and his attention to detail shows in the rebuilt floppy-drive eject mechanism. He gives it back that characteristic “schlurp” noise.

Then he outfitted the Raspberry Pi with an RTL dongle running dump1090 software to listen to the ADS-B radio signals. The data extracted from the SDR is piped off to an MQTT server with all sorts of data about the airplanes overhead. Another script subscribes to the MQTT topic and figures out which is the closest and runs an image search for the plane type in question, publishing the results back to another MQTT topic. One final script subscribes to this last topic and displays the relevant images on the screen. Pshwew!

The end result is a Macintosh Classic that’s continually updated with whatever planes are closest to being overhead. We’re not at all sure if this is fine art, or part of the useful arts, or maybe even none of the above. But we really like the nice case job and think that using MQTT as a back-end for coordinating multiple concurrent Python scripts (on the same computer) is pretty cool.

Tracking Nearly Every Aircraft With A Raspberry Pi

FlightAware is the premier site for live, real-time tracking of aircraft around the world, and for the last year or so, Raspberry Pi owners have been contributing to the FlightAware network by detecting aircraft flying overhead and sending that data to the FlightAware servers.

Until now, these volunteers have used Raspis and software defined radio modules to listen in on ADS-B messages transmitted from aircraft. With FlightAware’s new update to PiAware, their Raspberry Pi flight tracking software, Mode S transponders can also be detected and added to the FlightAware network.

Last year, FlightAware announced anyone with a Raspberry Pi, a software defined radio module, and an Internet connection would earn a free FlightAware enterprise account for listening to ADS-B transmitters flying overhead and sending that information to the FlightAware servers. ADS-B is a relatively new requirement for aviators that transmits the plane’s identification, GPS coordinates, altitude, and speed to controllers and anyone else who would like to know who’s flying overhead.

Mode S transponders, on the other hand, are older technology that simply transmits the call sign of an aircraft. There’s no GPS information or altitude information transmitted, but through some clever multilateration in the new PiAware release these transponders and planes can now be tracked.

To get the location of these transponders, at least three other PiAware boxes must receive a signal from a Mode S transponder. These signals, along with a timestamp of when they were received are then sent to the FlightAware servers where the location of a transponder can be determined.

The end result of this update is that FlightAware can now track twice as many aircraft around the world, all with a simple software update. It’s one of the most successful applications of crowdsourced software defined radio modules, and if you’d like to get in on the action, the FlightAware team put together a bulk order of ADS-B antennas.