FlightAware moves into space-based ADS-B flight tracking


When Daniel Baker set up FlightAware in 2005, his intention was to allow his friends and family to track his flights. At the time, Baker had recently completed flight school and wanted to be able to let people know when his flights had arrived safely.

There was a flight tracking solution available at the time, but it cost around $1,000 a month. Daniel was a software developer and immediately saw an opportunity to provide a publicly available interface for flight tracking.

His first major achievement was being able to negotiate with the US government so that he could get access to the flight tracking data in the first place.

Around the same time, Baker and Karl Lehenbauer (now FlightAware’s Chief Technology Officer) were working together on the forward-facing website as well as on the data processing in the background. Initially, the company was handling a few hundred messages from aircraft per second, but the pair knew that if the website was to be successful it had to be scaled properly to be able to handle much more data, not only from the FAA but from other sources as well.

The backend system that they built is called HyperFeed. Although it was initially built to be scaled, it has grown over the years to include lots more algorithms than the original system and now includes machine learning. It also now includes more data sources than the original FAA data source.

A big part of the new data sources come directly from ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast), a new technology that is becoming increasingly important. Using ADS-B an aircraft transmits data about its location, altitude and speed. The information from the aircraft is transmitted directly to a receiver – either on a satellite in space or on the ground – satellite as well as to other aircraft that are in the vicinity.

Picking up these signals means that a precise location, height and speed of the aircraft can always be tracked. The FAA has mandated that all aircraft flying in US airspace must be able to broadcast ADS-B out messages by January 1, 2020.

The technology was originally picked up by aviation enthusiasts to track the movement of aircraft. Originally enthusiasts were able to track an aircraft to a certain degree by intercepting its ACARS (Aircraft Communication and Addressing Systems) messages. The short data streams that are transmitted by ACARS do not include location or the height/speed of the aircraft, so once the use of ADS-B became more widespread, the enthusiast community jumped on the new technology.

Several companies jumped in, building boxes that could, with the use of an aerial, intercept and translate all of the ADS-B data and display it on a virtual radar screen. One of the first of these, built by UK-based firm Kinetic, was launched in 2005 and cost over $600.

As the technology became more widespread, more companies began offering solutions, with the result that prices came down, which, in turn, made them more popular.

With more of the boxes in circulation, people who owned them wanted to be able to share their data with others. If users had an external aerial mounted on the top of their house they could pick up signals from aircraft hundreds of miles away, but enthusiasts were also interested in seeing aircraft flying around other regions and maybe those that would be flying into their own range of view soon.

This idea of building networks of receivers around the world is now where FlightAware gets a lot of its data. It does offer a small USB dongle that plugs into a computer or laptop on one end and an aerial on the other end to serve the enthusiast community, at a price. But it also offers qualified locations a beefier model for free.

The company does this to increase its coverage around the world. Many developed regions already have large clusters of aviation enthusiasts that supply their received data in real time to websites like FlightAware as well as FlightRadar24.com. While FlightAware now has over 20,000 terrestrial ADS-B receivers in 190 countries, they are continuing to grow the network to gain coverage in remote places. In most places that means that FlightAware can receive aircraft data positions every two seconds, although the company admits that this is mostly over land.

“The terrestrial receivers are great and they give us really, really incredible coverage for aircraft flying over land and let us track aircraft movements on the ground at airports,” says Sara Orsi, director of marketing, FlightAware. “But over 70% of the earth is not land-based and that’s where Aireon space-based ADS-B comes in.”

To complement the terrestrial ADS-B network, FlightAware has partnered with Aireon to introduce space-based ADS-B flight tracking. The partnership with Aireon enables FlightAware to augment their terrestrial ADS-B coverage with tracking from Aireon’s space-based network, which is hosted on the Iridium NEXT constellation of 66 operational low-earth-orbit satellites. This means that FlightAware can now offer operators 100% global coverage, with aircraft updating their positions once a minute.

There are several advantages to using a low-earth orbit, rather than a geostationary orbit. Satellites in low-earth orbit are not only cheaper to launch but use up less energy than geostationary ones. The downside is that because they constantly moving faster than earth’s orbit there need to be more satellites in place to be able to give truly global coverage.

Having 100% global coverage means that for the first time, FlightAware can offer solutions that track aircraft on the ground as well as those flying. Through its web-based solution for aircraft operators, the company now offers full visibility to business aircraft operators from the moment the avionics on an aircraft are turned on, right the way through to when the plane has parked at its destination and the avionics are turned off.

By using space-based ADS-B tracking FlightAware says that it can pinpoint the location of any aircraft in the world to an area much smaller than the size of Manhattan.

FlightAware says that this situational awareness gives business aviation operators an added layer of security and comfort with their flights and surface tracking helps reduce the numbers of calls between people like catering companies and FBOs.