Aireon Hitchhikes On Iridium To Track Airplanes

SpaceX just concluded 2017 by launching 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. A footnote on the launch was the “hosted payload” on board each of the satellites: a small box of equipment from Aireon. They will track every aircraft around the world in real-time, something that has been technically possible but nobody claimed they could do it economically until now.

Challenge one: avoid adding cost to aircraft. Instead of using expensive satcom or adding dedicated gear, Aireon listen to ADS-B equipment already installed as part of international air traffic control modernization. But since ADS-B was designed for aircraft-to-aircraft and aircraft-to-ground, Aireon had some challenges to overcome. Like the fact ADS-B antenna is commonly mounted on the belly of an aircraft blocking direct path to satellite.

Challenge two: hear ADS-B everywhere and do it for less. Today we can track aircraft when they are flying over land, but out in the middle of the ocean, there are no receivers in range except possibly other aircraft. Aireon needed a lot of low-orbit satellites to ensure you are in range no matter where you are. Piggybacking on Iridium gives them coverage at a fraction of the cost of building their own satellites.

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19 RTL-SDR Dongles Reviewed

Blogger [radioforeveryone] set out to look at 19 different RTL-SDR dongles for use in receiving ADS-B (that’s the system where airplanes determine their position and broadcast it). Not all of the 19 worked, but you can read the detailed review of the 14 that did.

Granted, you might not want to pick up ADS-B, but the relative performance of these inexpensive devices is still interesting. The tests used Raspberry PI 3s and a consistent antenna and preamp system. Since ADS-B is frequently sent, the tests were at least 20 hours in length. The only caveat: the tests were only done two at a time, so it is not fair to directly compare total results across days.

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“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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