From celebrity jets to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, flight trackers are the dormant hit of the summer | Air Transport
OWant to watch a top secret government flight live? Follow the movements of a drug lord in real time? Or do you know how Taylor Swift’s jets pollute the air? They’re all streaming live on the dormant hit of the summer: online flight trackers.
On Tuesday, viewers set new records on Flightradar24, one of the world’s largest flight tracking websites, watching Nancy Pelosi’s seven-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei. The trip, shrouded in secrecy until its final moments, drew international attention after China made military threats in the weeks leading up to the visit, then launched live-fire drills once it landed .
Many Taiwanese were glued to flight trackers: One told me that their friend’s child had asked to stay up late to watch the live tracker – “like the New Year’s countdown”, remarked dryly the parent.
Ian Petchenik, communications manager for Flightradar24, said the site had seen “unprecedented sustained interest” in Pelosi’s flight, and at its peak a record 708,000 people were simultaneously watching the small red icon depicting the Boeing Speaker of the House C-40C – call sign SPAR19 – as it circled around the Philippines to bypass Chinese bases in the South China Sea, then crossed the Luzon Strait, apparently under watchful cover from a trio of American aircraft carriers, and crossed the mountain ranges of Taiwan before landing in Taipei.
The amount of traffic made Flightradar24 “unstable for some users” and the site was forced to limit access to certain points. A total of 2.92 million people watched part of his flight, about three times as many as watched on CNN in prime time.
Flightradar24 has had other big moments lately: around 550,000 viewers followed the flight of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as he returned to Moscow in 2021 to face imprisonment. Thousands more followed a US Air Force Global Hawk traveling around Ukraine during the Russian invasion before flying over the Black Sea. Viewers also used the site to follow the chaotic US evacuation from Afghanistan.
The appeal is simple, Petchenik said: “You can participate in history in real time. If the diary is the first draft of the story, then it is pre-writing. Flight tracking data has virtually no lag, providing a raw sense of immediacy. Another draw, says Petchenik, is the experience of watching flights with others and discussing them on social media. Imagine the attention, says Petchenik, if you could watch Nixon visit China in real time.
It’s not just global news events that trigger an increase in site traffic. As the transfer deadline approaches, it also becomes an essential tool for sports fans. “We see the most interest during the European football transfer window,” Petchenik said. “Teams have very dedicated fanbases. They will find out which flight their favorite player is on and they will track that flight.
Flight trackers rely on a new, open-standard surveillance technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), which allows planes to transmit their location and other information to anyone with a receiver.
Anyone can configure an ADS-B receiver using inexpensive kits. This has allowed Flightradar24 to grow from a few receivers in Sweden, when the site was founded in 2007, to an extensive network with over 30,000 receivers around the world, many of which are run by volunteers. The receivers have a range of a few hundred miles, although they struggle with terrain such as mountains. To fill in the gaps, Flightradar24 crosses its ground receivers with data from other sources, including satellites and data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States.
Subscribing to government data comes with a catch: Trackers must agree to abide by FAA rules that allow aircraft owners to request that their information be removed from public websites. This means that Flightradar24 displays certain flights anonymously, although Petchenik cannot specify which ones.
This is where a popular uncensored theft tracker comes in: ADS-B Exchange. The website was founded as a hobby in 2016 by Dan Streufert, an IT professional who describes the site’s policy: “We don’t block anything.” This is possible in part because the site does not subscribe to the FAA feed. Instead, it relies on channeled data from a network of approximately 9,000 ADS-B receivers around the world run by aviation enthusiasts and other volunteers.
Streufert’s network allows users to observe thefts that powerful people want to keep secret. Once, Streufert received a letter from a European lawyer asking ADS-B Exchange to stop tracking his client’s flights. After consulting the flight data, Streufert realized: “The guy was working for Gaddafi. He was charged with war crimes and killing people and yada yada. I guess someone had used our data to figure out that he was transporting gold from Venezuela to Libya on his private jet, and he wasn’t very happy that it came to light.
ADS-B Exchange’s approach to open data has also enabled citizen journalists to reveal the habits of America’s rich and famous. This year, a 19-year-old programmer named Jack Sweeney created a bot that tweeted Elon Musk’s flight paths. Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to delete the stream (the teenager declined).
Data from ADS-B Exchange made headlines this summer when an environmental nonprofit used it to estimate the carbon emissions produced by stars including Drake, Kylie Jenner, Travis Scott and Taylor Swift. – who replied that his plane was “frequently loaned to other people”.
But Steufert says sometimes high-level aircraft will deliberately broadcast their ADS-B data. “When the war in Ukraine started, you could see the US strategically turning on their aircraft transponders in the area to kind of send a message. In a hot area like that, you know they don’t accidentally leave it on. »
Steufert says official agencies frequently use data from ADS-B Exchange, whose backbone network can pick up movements that official systems don’t. “We have many kinds of inexpensive ground stations where government agencies probably have far fewer but far more sophisticated ground stations. There are pros and cons to each way of monitoring traffic. But there is also less red tape to access our system.
ADS-B Exchange often shares its data with air crash investigators, and it also has contracts with the US Department of Defense, Steufert said. “They don’t really tell us why they use it, but it helps cover some of the cost.”
Steufert says sites like his don’t do anything wrong. “We don’t interpret the data – we leave that up to journalists, the media, researchers, whoever, to interpret what it might mean. But we can share as much data as we want.