Web Sites Let Flight Enthusiasts Track Planes in the Air
|Northern Europe air traffic shown on PlaneFinder.|
Flight enthusiasts can now follow the flights of commercial — and even some top secret — aircraft around the world with the aid of websites that track the geolocation signals of planes in the air.
Flightradar24.com and PlaneFinder.net exploit the ADS-B (short for Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) system that is used by many planes today to automatically broadcast their GPS positions, altitude and flight path.
Air traffic controllers use this information to identify planes, to perform flow management and to keep them from flying too close to one another. Unlike older transponder systems, ADS-B signals can be picked up by other aircraft, so pilots don’t have to rely completely on ground controllers to know what other planes are nearby. This enhances situational awareness and makes for an overall safer flying experience.
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Flightradar24 and PlaneFinder each rely on networks of enthusiasts, or “feeders,” who pick up ADS-B signals of planes using commercial and custom-built gear and then broadcast their intercepts onto the Internet for anyone to see.
According to Flightradar24, about 60 percent of civil airliners use ADS-B, but only a small number of business jets and military aircraft use the transponder system. This means you will never be able to track a stealth helicopter or Air Force One on the Internet. However, there have been some notable exceptions. For example, the U.S. Air Force C-32Bs (a military version of the Boeing 747), which is operated by the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Foreign Emergency Support Team, was recently spotted on Flightradar24.
ADS-B is a fairly recent technology for the airline industry. The technology was not widespread, for instance, during Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners by turning off the planes’ transponders, effectively rendering them invisible to ground control radar.
If ADS-B were in use 10 years ago, it wouldn't have made the 9/11 attacks any less likely. The only difference is that Internet users around the world would have been able to watch the hijacked planes until the transponders were shut off, and then, minutes later, they would have seen all civil planes in the air diverting to the nearest airports as the U.S. airspace was shut down.
David Cenciotti is a military aviation journalist and information security expert based in Rome, Italy. Follow him on Twitter @cencio4.
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