How do flight trackers get their data? | Interview

Follow the plane where one of your acquaintances goes on vacation. Or get an overview of all aircraft of a certain type that are currently in the air. Or check whether it is a Boeing 747 or an Airbus A380 that forms four quickly dissolving white trails high in the clear blue sky. Internet programs such as FlightRadar24, FlightAware, OpenSky and adsbexchange make it possible. Jeff Kerz Graham is one of many automatic feeders.

It was around 11pm when Jeff heard a loud plane noise over his house. He quickly checked on FlightRadar24 to see what type it came from. He just saw that it was a flight from Russia before the plane disappeared from the radar. It fascinated him. “What was the reason?” he wondered. “Transponder off or what?” Reason enough for Jeff, a programmer by profession, to take action to get more data on the flight movements in the skies above his own home environment.

Jeff Kertz Graham © Lieneke Koornstra

Not just out of thin air

His interest doesn’t just come out of the blue. ‘My father was a mechanical engineer,’ he says. ‘First with LNER (London North Eastern Railway) at King’s Cross, London, and later with BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) at Heathrow. As a young lad living not far from Farnborough in Hampshire, I often saw the Concorde and the American Blackbird at the Biennial Farnborough Air Show. This is how my passion for trains and planes began. As I live in Kortenhoef and so close to Schiphol, I am even more fascinated by what flies over me.’

© Jeff Kertz Graham

Icons and lines

He shows a diagram on his computer with all kinds of connecting lines. It is that they are all blue, otherwise the association with a birth chart would not be entirely unthinkable. He points to the icon in the middle, the white house in a blue square. “It’s my home.” He points to the light green icon and says, “This flare icon represents the location of the last plane.” Then he points his finger at the yellow square. “The inner boundary of SkyRad is about 4.7 kilometers.” He points to the white square, he says. “SkyMap is about nine kilometers.” He then explains the blue lines with the dots: ‘They represent the flight paths that took place in my living environment. The flight tracks are displayed for the last hour.’ The blue line at the bottom of the schedule also gets his attention: ‘Here you can see how long the last flight at that time, in this case TAP782 with an Airbus A321neo from Tap Air Portugal on its way from Lisbon to Stockholm, was before for the SkyMap boundary. The left table shows information about the speed, height and so on of the “van”.

automatic feeders

“As one of the feeds in FlightRadar24, FlightAware, OpenSky and adsbexchange, I pass all this information on to them,” says Jeff. ‘Many others do the same with me. This is how these sites get their information. Based on the information obtained, they can precisely locate an aircraft’s position and map it, as well as provide more details about that flight.’ The automatic feeders have so-called ADS-B receivers (Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) at home. ‘To be honest, I’m quite curious to see who else is here in Holland,’ laughs Jeff.

© Jeff Kertz Graham

ADS-B receiver

An ADS-B receiver consists of the following parts: A FlightAware kit, a Raspberry Pi 3B+, a 32 GB USB stick with PiAware software, a FlightAware SMA male to SMA female antenna cable 0.3M and a FlightAware Pro Stick Plus (USB SDR ADS-B receiver) and a FlightAware 1090MHz ADS-B N-type antenna 26″ – 5.5 dBi. But there were a few things that preceded that with Jeff. Using a Home Assistant (HA), an application that the programmer had discovered three years earlier, he managed to configure his house as a Smart Home. “In the HA application, I found an integration called OpenSky,” he says. ‘It worked well, but I wanted more information. I found that OpenSky also has an API (Application Programming Interface). It allowed me to be more inventive.’ Since he acts as a feeder, Jeff also enjoys an additional benefit: paying a subscription fee is not an option for him on all these flight tracking sites.

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