Build a Cheap Airplane ADS-B Radio Receiving Tracking Station

Do you have commercial or general aviation flying over your home or near your home? Would you like to know more about these airplanes: identity, heading, speed, altitude and maybe GPS data along with even more information? Well then [Rich Osgood] has just the project for you and it’s not that expensive to set up. [Rick] demonstrates using a cheap USB dongle European TV tuner style SDR (software defined radio) tuner that you can get for under $30 to listen in on the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) 1090 MHz mode “S” or 978 MHz mode “UAT” signals being regularly transmitted from these aircraft.

He steps us through configuring the radio to use a better antenna for improved reception then walks through detailed software installation and set up to control the radio receiver as well as pushing the final decoded data to mapping software. This looks like a fascinating and fun project if you live near commercial airways. You won’t need a license for this hack because you’re only listening and not transmitting, plus these are open channels which are legal to receive.

There are some frequencies you are not legally allowed to eavesdrop on—private communications for residential wireless telephones and cellular frequencies to name just a few (Code of Federal Regulations Title 47, Part 15.9). So remember you do have to be careful and stay within legal frequencies even if your equipment is not restricted from such reception. Also note that just because you have a legal right to intercept conversations or data on some frequencies it could be illegal to publicly share the intercepted content or any details on the reception or decoding (just saying for the record).

We wonder if [Rick] could partner with [G. Eric Rogers] to upgrade [Eric’s] motorized telescope airplane tracking system to extrapolate the radio telemeter data into vector data so his Arduino can track without relying on a video feed. That merger might just get them both on a short TSA list.

Join us after the break for some extra informational links and to watch the video on setup, installation and usage of this cheap airplane tracking rig.

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A Low-Cost Modular High Altitude Balloon Tracker with Mesh Networked Sensors

[Ethan] just tipped us about a project he and a few colleagues worked on last year for their senior design project. It’s a low-cost open hardware/software high altitude balloon tracker with sensors that form a mesh network with a master node. The latter (shown above) includes an ATmega644, an onboard GPS module (NEO-6M), a micro SD card slot, a 300mW APRS (144.39MHz) transmitter and finally headers to plug an XBee radio. This platform is therefore in charge of getting wireless data from the slave platforms, storing it in the uSD card while transmitting the balloon position via APRS along with other data. It’s interesting to note that to keep the design low-cost, they chose a relatively cheap analog radio module ($~40) and hacked together AFSK modulation of their output signal with hardware PWM outputs and a sine-wave lookup table.

The slave nodes are composed of ‘slave motherboards’ on which can be plugged several daughter-boards: geiger counters, atmospheric sensors, camera control/accelerometer boards. If you want to build your own system, be sure to check out this page which includes all the necessary instructions and resources.

Long-distance High Frequency APRS Tracking Using The FreeTrak63


If you dabble in the ham radio hobby we’re sure you’ve heard of GPS position monitoring or tracking using APRS packet data commonly transmitting over the VHF ham band and FM modulated. One of the issues you’ll face using this common method is range limitations of VHF. [Mike Berg] a.k.a [N0QBH ] tipped us off to his latest project to greatly increase the range of a standalone APRS system utilizing the HF bands on single-sideband (SSB).

There are some unique challenges transmitting packet data using SSB over HF bands.  High Frequency APRS has been around for decades utilizing FSK AX.25 packet transmissions at 300 baud, but it was quite susceptible to noise and propagation aberrations. More recently PSK-31 at the slower 31 baud speed helped alleviate many of these issues. [Mike] utilized the somewhat updated APRS with PSK-63 and the “APRS Messenger” program to overcome these challenges. [Mike’s] hardware solution consists of a PIC 16F690 micro which is coded to receive data from a GPS receiver, convert it into PSK-63 and then transmit on 30 meters over an attached HF radio. A second receiving station or stations at great distances can pick up and decode the transmission using the “APRS Messenger” program connected to the receiving radio over the computer’s soundcard. The program can then forward the tracking information, if good, to tracking websites like and APRS.FI.

You can build your own FreeTrak63 by downloading [Mike’s] parts list, assembly code, HEX file, manual and schematic. The PCB is available on OSH Park if you don’t want to make your own or wire point-to-point. Let’s not forget to mention how hackable this hardware is, being really just an eight bit DAC, micro, serial in and radio out. One could reprogram this hardware to do other modulation schemes like AX.25 packet or MFSK16, the sky’s the limit. If short-distance on VHF with existing Internet linked receiver networks using an Arduino compatible platform is more to your taste, then checkout the Trackuino open source APRS Tracker.

Sailing With An Autopilot


After seeing an autopilot for a kayak a few days ago, [Mike] thought he should send in his version of a water-borne autopilot. Compared to something that fits in a one-man kayak, [Mike]’s creation is a monstrous device, able to keep a largeish sailboat on a constant heading.

To keep track of the ship’s bearing, [Mike] is using a very cool digital compass that uses LEDs to keep a steady heading. Also included is an amazingly professional and very expensive 6 axis IMU. To actually steer the ship, [Mike] is using a linear actuator attached to the tiller powered by a huge 60 Amp motor controller. The actuator only draws about 750 mA, but if [Mike] ever needs an autopilot for a container ship or super tanker, the power is right there.

For control, [Mike] ended up using an Arduino, 16-button keypad, and an LCD display. With this, he can put his autopilot into idle, calibration, and run modes, as well as changing the ship’s heading by 1, 10, and 100 degrees port or starboard.

From a day of sailing, [Mike] can safely say his autopilot works very well. It’s able to keep a constant heading going downwind, and even has enough smarts to tack upwind.

Videos below.

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Using a Raspberry Pi to give your car more features

[Andrei] is cruising in style thanks to his Raspi-powered CarPC project, which is a steal at $200 considering all the functionality it provides. This is an update to the work we saw from him back in March. Rather than completely replace his car’s head unit, [Andrei] simply relocated it to the trunk, permanently set it to the “aux input” source, and connected the Raspberry Pi’s audio output. The Pi runs a Raspbian Wheezy distro with XBMC and is mounted in the storage area beneath the middle armrest. [Andrei] filled the hole left by the old stereo with a 7-inch touchscreen display, which connects to the Pi through both HDMI and USB. If you throw the car into reverse, the Pi automatically selects the touchscreen’s AV input to display the car’s backup camera, then flips back when put in drive.

The unit also provides navigation via the open-source Navit software using OpenStreetMap data. An ST22 SkyTraq GPS receiver grabs coordinates and feeds them into the Raspi, which updates the on-screen map once per second. You’ll want to watch the video after the break (Audio Warning: Tupac) to see for yourself just how well the CarPC came together,

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Fail of the Week: GPS module design

GPS is really fun to play with in your projects. But when [Trax] decided to build a GPS chip into his design the fun ended abruptly. Above you can see the section of the board devoted to the hardware. Unfortunately this PCB fails to provide any GPS location data whatsoever.

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Centimeter-level precision GPS for $900

[Colin] and [Fergus] have been working with GPS for years now, and like most builders of really cool things, they’re often limited by the precision of off-the-shelf GPS units. While a GPS receiver is usually good for meters of accuracy,  this just isn’t good enough for a lot of projects. What you need is centimeter-level accuracy, something the guys have managed to do with their Piksi GPS receiver.

Where most GPS receivers only look at the data coming from the GPS satellites orbiting overhead, the Piksi uses another technique, real-time kinematics (RTK), to determine the receiver’s location with exacting precision. The basic idea behind RTK is to look at the carrier frequency of the GPS signals at 1575.42 MHz. This frequency has a wavelength of 19 cm, compared to the alternating 1s and 0s of the that are transmitted at around 1 MHz, or about 300 meters between each bit. While centimeter-level precision isn’t possible with only one receiver, two of these Piksi boards – one base station and one on a vehicle, connected via radio link – can make for a very exacting high-accuracy GPS receiver.

Previously, commercial RTK GPS systems have cost thousands of dollars – making a quadcopter or other homebrew project that relies on this level of precision nonsensical. [Colin] and [Fergus] have built hardware that can bring the price of this setup to under $1000. As a bonus, the Piksi board can also receive from other constellations such as Galileo and GLONASS. A very impressive piece of hardware, and we can’t wait to see the applications.