Plane Spotting (And More!): Put your spare gear to use as a feeder for community-based data exchanges

Airplanes Maker News
Plane Spotting (And More!): Put your spare gear to use as a feeder for community-based data exchanges

If you’ve ever used a flight-tracking app or looked up local weather on Weather Underground, you’ve likely accessed data supplied, in part, by volunteer contributors. Crowd-sourced data exchanges collect this information and share the pooled results online via interactive maps. The data ranges from radio-signal telemetry for airplanes, ships, weather balloons, or satellites, to seismic measurements, to air and weather quality. The end result is providing a useful service a larger community through apps or websites that may require a paid membership, or may employ the support of advertising. In return for the time and money spent to generate and feed data into their commercial exchange, these outlets sometimes offer the participants enterprise-level access to their apps and services, which can otherwise be quite costly. Some feeders might also simply want to have their data viewable through a specific provider’s UX, or enjoy contributing scientific data to a project alongside an international community.

The devices that feed these are sometimes proprietary, provided or sold by commercial data exchanges, but are more commonly something the participants make. For radio data, a typical configuration would be connecting a Raspberry Pi with a customized OS to an inexpensive RTL-SDR dongle and a handmade antenna. Even the early RasPi models work well, although it can be advantageous to have Wi-Fi — built-in or via dongle — for optimal tracker placement

With help from others online, I’ve assembled the following listing of many data exchanges in which you can participate. There are likely others, and note that this list doesn’t contain exchanges requiring an amateur radio license such as APRS, PSKReporter, or WSPRnet. I encourage you to pull out a spare Pi and grab a USB-equipped SDR (they cost around $25) to play around with any that might catch your eye. Have fun!

AIR TRAFFICAirframes ACARSRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR
AIR TRAFFICFlightAware ADS-BRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR *
AIR TRAFFICFlightradar24 ADS-BRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR *
AIR TRAFFICOGN (Open Glider Network) FLARM, OGNRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR
AIR TRAFFICOpenSky ADS-BRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR *
AIR TRAFFICPlane Finder ADS-BRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR *
AIR TRAFFICThebaldgeek ACARS, etc.Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR
LIGHTNINGBlitzortung; feeds LightningMaps N/AProprietary lightning detection devices
MARINE TRAFFICPocket Mariner AISSupplied proprietary, Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR **
MARINE TRAFFICMarine Traffic AISSupplied proprietary, Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR **
MARINE TRAFFICShip Finder AISRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR **
MARINE TRAFFICVesselFinder AISRaspberry Pi + RTL-SDR **
RADIATION, AIR QUALITYSafeCast SensorsProprietary
RADIOBroadcastify Radio feeds (police/EMS/etc.)PC + radio
RADIOOpenMHz Radio feeds (police, fire) (U.S.)PC + RTL-SDR
SATELLITESR2server APT, LRPT, FSK, etc.Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR
SEISMIC ACTIVITYRaspberryShake ADS-BProprietary
TRAIN TRAFFIC (U.S.)ATCSMon; feeds TrainMon5 ATCS, ARES, etc.Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR
WEATHERWeather Underground N/ACommercial weather stations + bridge
WEATHER BALLOONSSQ6KXY Radiosonde Tracker Various (RS41, etc.)Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR
WEATHER BALLOONSSondeHub Various (RS41, etc.)Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR; LoRa capable ESP32

* These also supply proprietary receivers to plug gaps in coverage.

** Also accepts NMEA-0183 messages via UDP socket that is relatively simple to set up from generic software.

Maritime activity, tracked by users of Ship Finder.


APRS: Automatic Packet Reporting System — an amateur radio system for real time communication of coordinates, weather station telemetry, text messages, etc.

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WSPR: Weak Signal Propagation Reporter — a protocol for testing propagation paths on the medium (300-3,000kHz) and high (3-30MHz) frequency radio bands.

ADS-B: Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast — a flight data transmission system with wide global adoption.

ACARS: Aircraft Communication Addressing and Reporting System — a system for transmission of short messages between aircraft and ground stations via radio or satellite.

FLARM: portmanteau of “flight” and “alarm” — a proprietary system which alerts pilots to potential collisions between aircraft, most commonly used in light aircraft such as gliders.

OGN: Open Glider Network — a unified tracking system for gliders, drones, and other aircraft.

ATC: Air Traffic Control — “airband” radio communication between air traffic control and aircraft.

AIS: Automatic Identification System — coastal tracking system for ships.

APT: Automatic Picture Transmission — 
low-resolution analog image transmission system used by weather satellites.

LRPT: Low-Rate Picture Transmission — 
digital image transmission system used by weather satellites.

VHF/UHF: Very High Frequency / Ultra High Frequency — radio bands in which data is broadcast. VHF: 30–300MHz, UHF: 300MHz–3GHz.

LoRa: portmanteau of “long” and “range” — proprietary low-power wide-area network modulation commonly used in IoT, with recent use in satellites.

AM/FM/CW/LSB/USB/FSK/PSK: Amplitude Modulation / Frequency Modulation / Continuous Wave / Lower Side Band / Upper Side Band / Frequency-Shift Keying / Phase Shift Keying — modes of radio communication.

ATCS: Automated Train Control System — a train data transmission system in use in the U.S.

ARES: Advanced Railroad Electronics System — a version of ATCS specific to Burlington Northern Railroad. Not to be confused with the Amateur Radio Emergency Service.

RS41: Data format for the RS41 weather balloon manufactured by Vaisala. One of 10 weather balloon data formats tracked. 

Sondehub view of weather balloons above Europe.© OpenStreetMap contributors, Flightradar24, Google Maps, SafeCast, Mike Senese

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a 38-year Japan resident, Make: fan, and a radio and 3D printing enthusiast. You can find him on Reddit under the same name.

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