(CNN) — On average, more than 200,000 flights take off and land around the world. This figure includes commercial, cargo and charter aircraft – which account for almost half of the total – as well as private aircraft, business jets, helicopters, air ambulances, government and military aircraft, drones, hot air balloons and gliders.
Many of them have a transponder, a device that communicates the aircraft’s position and other flight data to air traffic control. And that signal can be picked up by inexpensive receivers based on a technology called ADS-B, or automatic dependent surveillance. This, in a nutshell, is what flight tracking websites do and give users a real-time overview of everything in the sky (with a few exceptions).
Now this information is reaching audiences beyond aviation enthusiasts. When a US Air Force plane carrying Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan in early August, more than 700,000 people watched the event live as it unfolded, via the Flightradar24 service flight radar.
The plane, a military version of the Boeing 737 called the C-40, took off from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia before making a complicated flight to Taipei to avoid encounters with the Chinese military, adding hours to flight time.
This meant the destination was not immediately clear and sparked conversations online as the plane slowly headed north towards the island. As a result, it became the most watched flight in Flightradar24’s history, with 2.92 million users monitoring at least part of the seven-hour journey.
The website is part of a popular group of flight tracking services alongside FlightAware and Plane Finder. And it was founded in Sweden in 2006 “completely by accident,” FlightRadar24 communications director Ian Petchenik recounted as a strategy to drive traffic to a flight price comparison service.
Flightradar24 gained notoriety in 2010, when a volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded thousands of flights and attracted four million views: “It was certainly our first foray into international events, and how to show public air traffic in time could influence how people take in current events,” Petchenik said. “The number of hits we received could have crashed our website, so what saved us was that There was nothing to show but a shortcoming,” she added.
Prior to Pelosi’s trip, the record for most-watched flight on Flightradar24 was held by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia, where he was to be arrested and sent to prison. This flight, in January 2021, was followed by 550,000 people, beating the previous record from April 2020, when nearly 200,000 users followed a Boeing 777 by tracing the symbols of the Turkish flag in the sky of Ankara, for celebrate 100 years of sovereignty.
Before that, in September 2017, thousands watched as the brave Delta Boeing 737 flight headed straight into Hurricane Irma to land in Puerto Rico and take off 40 minutes later for JFK Airport, carefully positioning itself in the gaps. between the arms of the hurricane.
📡 https://t.co/XN6E2TcXUN pic.twitter.com/YRXxEduTok
— Flightradar24 (@flightradar24) September 6, 2017
Now, apart from large-scale events, the number of people following the flights is also increasing. “We have recorded that many people use the site to monitor a loved one’s flight, track their own flight, or find the flight they are going to board later, to make sure the plane is on its way,” Petchenik said.
“Another case is for people who are interested in aviation or really like to track certain types of planes. They can also go to the airport, access the app and see which planes are coming. so people who have a personal interest in aviation, because they own their own plane and rent it out, or because they have a fleet of planes and want to know where they are. There are people with a professional interest in flight data, i.e. airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers who use large data sets to better understand the industry.”
How data is collected
To collect the data, Flightradar created its own network of ADS-B receivers. And, they claim, it is now the largest network in the world with around 34,000 units covering even remote areas like Antarctica.
About a quarter of the receivers were built by Flightradar24 itself. But most were put together by enthusiasts who provided the data. Since building a receiver is relatively inexpensive, with components costing no more than $100, many people have joined since Flightradar24 opened its networks to the public in 2009.
Large-scale deployment of receivers is essential for monitoring flights on a global scale, but there is an obvious problem with the oceans, where networks are becoming scarce. How do they take cover in the open sea?
“Find islands where we can and make sure we have receivers there,” Petchenik explained. “But recently, we have been using ADS-B satellite receivers to better monitor aircraft over the ocean. However, our predominant data source remains our terrestrial network.
Having detailed and localized data can be useful for obtaining early information in case of emergency and accident: “We store everything that reaches our servers and if necessary we can access a specific receiver and extract the raw data. This is usually only done in the event of an accident or if we have a request from an air navigation service provider or an accident investigation,” Petchenik said.
Sometimes the data can reveal the cause of an accident before an official investigation. In the case of Germanwings flight 9525, which the co-pilot deliberately crashed into a mountain on March 24, 2015, the data suggests a pretty clear picture: “One of the parameters that emerges from the data set we receive in the case de The Germanwings flight is called MCP ALT, it is the control that tells the plane’s autopilot at what altitude to fly. Looking at the data from this aircraft, the altitude value had been set to zero.
However, not all data is available for all aircraft, as it depends on the type of transponders and receivers involved.
Aircraft owners or operators can also choose not to allow their data to be publicly displayed, as is often the case with military, government and private aircraft. For example, they can enroll in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program called LADD (“Limiting Aircraft Data Display”): “We stick to that list,” Petchenik said.
“[La lista] allows operators to display your data in a different way, either anonymously or, in certain circumstances, without displaying it at all. Of all the aircraft we regularly monitor, only 3% have some type of regulation to sample their data.
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