Sources, reliability… How the FlightRadar24 air tracking site works

Launched in 2006, this site provides real-time monitoring of global air traffic. FlightRadar24 recorded a visitor record on Tuesday when Nancy Pelosi’s plane landed in Taiwan.

From simple curious to enthusiasts, including aviation professionals: FlightRadar24 attracts crowds. The site broke its audience record on Tuesday: more than 708,000 Internet users logged on to follow the flight to Taiwan of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the American House of Representatives.

FlightRadar24 makes it possible to track the movements of aircraft in real time around the world, but also to consult various flight data: numbers, airlines or their origins and destinations.

The site, which claims 2 million users per day and more than 40 million downloads for its app, was however born a little by chance. In 2006, two Swedish friends – Mikael Robertsson and Olov Lindberg – launched an airline ticket comparison site. To stand out, they add real-time trip tracking. Quickly, they note with surprise the enthusiasm of Internet users, says the wall street journal.

Near-exhaustive coverage of air traffic

FlightRadar24 claims to track 180,000 flights daily, operated by more than 1200 companies in a network of 4000 airports. Among the routes analyzed, those of “commercial flights, business jet flights, private flights, gliders, most helicopter flights, (…) government flights, some military flights and drones “, lists the company on its site.

Enough to ensure comprehensive coverage of air traffic – with a few exceptions.

“Information about a small number of flights may be limited or blocked based on requests from owners or operators through third-party services, such as the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aircraft Data Limitation Program (the government agency responsible for the regulations and controls of civil aviation), “says FlightRadar24.

And to continue: “Some high-profile aircraft, such as Air Force One (Editor’s note: US presidential fleet), are not displayed. Most other aircraft subject to restrictions are displayed anonymously.”

A technology more precise than radars

To track aircraft, the site collects a wealth of information. It retrieves the databases of airlines and airports – including flight schedules and statuses – but also other structures, such as the Federal Aviation Administration.

The heart of its activity, however, is based on the data provided by the planes themselves thanks to ADS-B technology (for “automatic dependent surveillance in broadcast mode”, in French). In the process of being deployed for around fifteen years, this technology enables aircraft equipped with it to send a signal to the satellites in real time, including their position, altitude, speed or even their flight heading.

If requested by air traffic controllers, ADS-B can also provide data such as cockpit instrument settings and the amount of fuel remaining. wall street journal.

The satellites that have received the signals in turn send them back to ground stations, such as those at airports.

ADS-B technology was developed with modern aircraft in order to replace the ground control system by radar, considered imprecise. The objective: to prevent planes from disappearing in mid-flight, as was the case with the MH370, considered the greatest mystery of civil aviation. In March 2014, the Malaysia Airlines plane and its 239 passengers on board disappeared from radar over the Indian Ocean before crashing.

A global community of volunteers

FlightRadar24 anticipated the development of the technology by deploying from the outset a cooperative global network of receivers capable of collecting aircraft signals.

The company now claims a network of 30,000 receivers, thanks to a community of volunteers. It is possible to make an online request on the site in order to receive a free receiver to install at home.

Among the requirements to be met, have housing to offer “excellent reception conditions” because an “antenna must be placed outside, on a roof, and have a clear 360-degree view of the sky”, details the website. The antenna is then connected by cable to the receiver, located inside the home. This receiver must be connected to the Internet “24/7” to transmit data to FlightRadar24.

The site is working to strengthen the mesh of its network of receivers in order to improve its coverage, which is still imperfect depending on the geographical area.

“Due to the high frequency used (1090 MHz), each receiver’s coverage is limited to approximately 250-450 kilometers in all directions, depending on location,” the site points out.

This makes “very difficult coverage over the oceans” in particular.

For planes that are not yet equipped with ADS-B, the site calculates their position using the multilateration method. This calculates a location by measuring the distance between several known points.

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