Is An ADS-B Receiver The Solution For Drone Pilots?

Over the years here at Hackaday, we’ve covered a range of stories about the ongoing panic surrounding drone flights. From plastic bags reported as drone incidents through to airports closed with no evidence of drones being involved, it’s clear that drone fliers are an embattled group facing a legal and aeronautical establishment that seems to understand little about them or their craft.

It sometimes seems to be a no-win situation for fliers, but perhaps [XJet] has something which might improve matters. He’s published a video showing off a portable ADS-B receiver which could be used by drone pilots to check for any aircraft in the vicinity and perhaps more importantly allow the drone community to take the moral high ground when problems occur.

The receiver isn’t particularly special, being a Raspberry Pi with LCD screen and an RTL-SDR receiver in a nice 3D printed enclosure. He says he’ll be publishing all software and build details in due course. But it’s the accessibility which makes it such a good idea, instead of being a very expensive safety device it’s a receiver that could probably be made with a less powerful Pi for under $100.

There is of course a flaw in the plan, that not all pilots are concerned enough for their safety to fit an ADS-B transponder to their aircraft, and so are invisible to both the thus-equipped drone pilot and air traffic control alike. This puts the onus on pilots to consider ADS-B an essential, but from the drone flier’s point of view we’d consider that a spotter should be part of their group anyway.

Curious what the fuss is about? Let us take you on a journey.

Thanks [Hackbyte] for the tip.

44 thoughts on “Is An ADS-B Receiver The Solution For Drone Pilots?

    1. I’m not sure if I’d want bunch of ADSB transmitters to go out to regular people. It has not authentication and many airports rely on it to know where aircraft are.

      Way too easy already to transmit false signals and cause trouble.

      1. After a short search I found (among others) the uAvionix SkyEcho 2. This ADS-B transceiver costs around EUR800 and weighs 120gram.

        I’m not a pilot myself, but I tend to agree with the maker of that video and such a transceiver could be put in each and every airplane quite easily.

        1. Pretty sure Mike was referring to TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System) there. It’s a system that identifies other aircraft on a trajectory to risk a collision and gives the pilots an alarm and a course to follow immediately to avoid the collision.

          1. @nic, as far as I remember TCAS systems try not to let aircraft within a fairly large safety bubble of each other, the bubble extends forward quite a ways in the direction of travel of the aircraft depending on its speed. Compared to that kind of size, and the speed of most manned aircraft, the slightly bobbing dot of a drone isn’t super fast.

        2. Some of us fly airplanes that have no electrical system. No battery, no generator, nothing. Adding a power-using thing that goes through batteries and needs to be remembered on a regular basis may not be a great idea.

          The rule of flying is see and avoid. All aircraft need to be able to visually spot each other and act to avoid collision, unless you’re flying under instrument flight rules, in which case separation is managed by people working at air traffic control.
          Drones need to either be able to see approaching aircraft or operate under instrument flight rules, where their location/direction is dictated by traffic control.

          Dumping expensive requirements on airplane owners to avoid drones is not fair.

          1. I suspect your days are numbered. There have been plenty of incidents with GA aircraft flying into controlled or restricted airspace without contact or permission, some have been accidents, some have been ineptitude, some have been medical issues. Electrical equipment isn’t just for you, it’s for everyone around you, and if you want to fly over our heads you’d best do your hardest to not crash onto our heads.

          2. but in the same respect, grounding respectful open-field, line-of-sight r/c heli owners like myself that have never broken 50′ above ground is also extremely frustrating.

    2. The main threats between UAVs and other vehicles in the air is helicopters and low flying military aircraft. Since hobby drones are limited to 400ft and shouldn’t fly near airports (DJI drones have geo lockouts for these).

          1. that’s 20w nominal, so presumably EIRP, not actual watts (I couldn’t find antenna gain, but it’s certified with a specific antenna that definitely has *some* gain!). I also don’t see how you can rule out the duty cycle explanation. There may be a better one, but the data sheet I see definitely implies the 1W power consumption is an average. And an ads-b transmitter just has to send a short message a few times per second at most.

    1. The US versions are NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS EACH! Way more than what I have in my hand-built collection of paper/foam “park flyer” planes that I fly LOS, usually by myself. We can already check – that’s really enough if you are staying under 200′. IMO, Long-range FPV is the *real* legal grey area that needs to be addressed.

      This all feels like a plan for Amazon to take ownership of all airspace below 200′.

    2. “ping20Si is NOT approved for use in the United States.
      For U.S. applications, see ping200Sr and ping200X”

      I looked at the pages of all three and they don’t list the price which suggests it’s very expensive.

  1. Not all aircraft are required to have ADSB out, a Transponder or even a radio. ASB receivers give a false sense of security and encourage keeping eyes inside. The eyeball is your best option.

    1. Yeah. ADS-B will not show many civilian general aviation planes.
      There also seems to be only a single RTL-SDR in there. So it does not cover the additional 978MHz ADS-B channel that is is used in USA.
      Or 868 MHz FLARM and ADS-L 4 SRD-860 used by some folks in Europe.

  2. “…not all pilots are concerned enough for their safety to fit an ADS-B transponder to their aircraft, and so are invisible to both the thus-equipped drone pilot and air traffic control alike”

    Two *serious* problems with that concept.

    1) ADSB transmitters require significant power, and many aircraft cannot supply that power because battery technology is not up to the task. Paragliders, gliders and balloons fall into that category.

    2) Air Traffic Control? What’s that? (ATC is irrelevant in the vast majority of airspace that is *uncontrolled* class G airspace

    In class G airspace the rule is “see and be seen”, and don’t be heads-down in the cockpit. Drones should conform to that well-established principle, but there are proposals for “beyond visual range” drone flights in class G airspace. Nobody knows how such drones will do the “see” bit, nor if they are sufficiently visible for others to see and avoid them.

    1. If you want your dinner to be seen, put lots of lights on it. Steady, blinking in all colors.

      As a pilot, I have a hard enough time seeing a 25ft wingspan airplane. There ain’t no way I am gonna see you 2ft drone.

    2. I agree. This quote proves that the author does not know as much about aviation as they think they do. Just because an aircraft owner doesn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on an upgrade does not mean that they are not concerned for their safety. This is presumptuous, arrogant, rude and plain wrong. Also, the idea that aircraft without ADS/B are invisible is demonstrably false and silly. Aircraft have been visible to ATC for decades before ADS/B was even a thing. ADS/B has only been required in the U.S. for 3 years (and only for a tiny amount of airspace). My guess is that this author would be surprised to find out that a large number of ATC towers don’t even have radar and rely on pilots to report their position.

  3. I see a lot of comments here about how ADS-B isn’t the right solution for drones because a. The hardware is too expensive b. the power required is too high.

    Would it not make sense to explore a lower power solution in an unlicensed band which could be used for a drone equivalent to TCAS? Something that tells other aircraft/drones in the air where you are and uses a simple conflict negotiation algorithm like TCAS to avoid collisions?

    Looking forward, imagine a system that didn’t just use a radio receiver as an input listening for other devices saying where they are, and maybe even using lidar to confirm that the airspace in the direction of travel is empty, and then sending a broadcast message if the airspace isn’t empty indicating that there is a conflict and noting the expected deconflicting direction of travel…

    The beauty of the drone ecosystem is that one is largely in airspace under 400 feet in the US, not around airports, and so there is literal space in which to play with new technologies for avoiding collisions which could then in theory be offered to vehicles traveling in more heavily trafficked airspace.

  4. People generally forget that there are plenty of aircraft out there, and not all of them are powered. There is a reason why visual flight rules are called visual.

    VFR airspace is shared between drones, helicopters, balloons, model planes, paragliders, birds…

    In general I think ADSB is a pretty good solution, as soon as there are transponders available for less than 100 USD and battery lifetime >10h. It also needs a ground network of base stations.

      1. Collision warning alone won’t help the technology get adopted. If I put expensive technology in my otherwise lightweight glider, then it has to offer more to me than “there’s a drone”. Becoming visible for ATC otoh means I get to activate multi-purpose airspace and use restriction zones.

        1. If you are so keen in showing ATC whre you are while gliding that is your own problem and there are already solutions on the market for that.
          Persopnally, i dont care about ATC, and i dont see why would you. ATC, unless you are flying IFR in suitable airspace, and i seriously doubt you do that while gliding, they wont separate you from other traffic. they certainly wont separate you from other gliders.
          If you really are a glider pilot, you should know that and if you dont, then the problem is not the transponder.
          on top of the mode C xpndr, i have a cheap OGN xpndr on my a/c
          amazingly, ATC wont often see where i am, but anyone else with FR24 can.

    1. No exception for racing drones that only fly in buildings or if they’re flown somewhere without a roof they’re always flown within a defined boundary (usually defined by things like the walls and seating of an arena)?

      1. Their graph explains (and justifies) that claim pretty well. According to them, hot-air balloons, gliders, etc. make up less than 1.5% of the total hours flown of all aircraft. I didn’t dig into their data sources, but it seems legit on its face.

  5. Military aircraft don’t always use ADS, so depending where you are it may simply better to find another hobby. See FAA–2019–0562; Amdt. No. 91–355] And in Australia where I am they never seemed to have used it because we have never had an issue tracking civilian flights in our area but can visually spot a lot of RAAF aircraft that don’t show up at all.

  6. All airspace users are going to have to modernize. That means forget about using aircraft, of any type, that don’t have significant electrical power to support the use of TCAS or similar devices. Gliders, balloons, sailplanes, etcetera are going to have to be electronically identifiable so that the rest of the airspace users know that you are operating and have a chance to avoid colliding with your device. Soon enough, after some expensive jet engines get significantly damaged, there will be mandatory liability/collision insurance requirements for all these UAVs and other Remotely Piloted Air Vehicles .

    1. you clearly have no idea what a TCAS is, how it works, and how much it costs
      “are going to have to be electronically identifiable ”
      identifiable? i dont give half crap who the other a/c is. i just want to see it is there. for that, a 50 dollars OGN or FLARM or ADSB UAT tranponder is more than enough.
      but, also enabled by people like you who has no idea what he is blabbering about but still thinks he can have a saying, TPTB force us recreational aviators to spend several thousands for ADSB out or mode S-ES xpndrs, making recreational flying even more complicated and expensive than it already is.
      as for the risk of collision with “drones”, it is a made up issue, baed on absolutely nothing. i have never seen a “drone” while flying, nor has anyone else i know who flies, and believe me, i saw every sort of stuff airborne.
      i know a guy who flies a canard aircraft, and he is being already reported as “drone” multiple times.

  7. a spotter is a dumb, idiotic idea that could only come from bureaucrats
    we have been flying “drones” (read RC models) since decades, much higher and faster that most quadcopters can, not to mention vastly heavier, without issues.
    All these idiotic rules have only one objective: eliminate the hobby so this otherwise mostly unused airspace can be sold or gifted to friends and associates using “drones” for commercial purposes.

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