I often find myself talking to friends and colleagues about how the ‘younger’ generation have no idea how easy they have things these days. This usually comes on the back of streaming music on my iPhone while out walking the dog or taking a leisurely stroll into town.
I remember fondly the ‘good old days’ where if you wanted to download one MP3 song from the Internet, you would have to have a variety of questionable software platforms to download Torrents and literally leave your computer running overnight, connected to the Internet via a dial-up modem and hope the signal didn’t drop out through the night or someone randomly tried to phone your land-line telephone.
The next morning would often be met with disappointment when you find out you failed to complete the download, which was usually only around 4 or 5mb in size, but when dealing with dial-up connections this was massive. The process would normally repeat itself over several nights just to successfully download one entire song. These days everyone just opens up an app wherever they are and seamlessly stream endless amounts of music, films and TV shows wherever they happen to be and don’t even give it a second thought.
The same these days can also be said for the aviation hobby and the wonderful world of Virtual Radar.
If someone had said to me when I first started out in the aviation hobby many years ago that I would be able to track live aircraft on my mobile phone while walking down the street or sitting at the local airfield, my first question would have been what is a mobile phone…
The technological advances which have graced the aviation hobby are nothing short of remarkable and each advancement brings a new dimension to what is already an exciting and interesting hobby.
For me personally, and likely for many others, one of the most significant advancements to the hobby was the arrival of the virtual radar systems. Being able to see and track aircraft on a screen was a revelation and when combined with a radio scanner, provides endless hours of enjoyment and a much more in depth view into the not only the world of civil and military aviation, but also a window into global events unfolding. It seems like only a few years ago all this technology came about, and we had to pinch ourselves while writing this when we realised that it’s been 15 years since the first commercially available virtual radar system became available and we received our first Mode-S/ADS-B receiver.
We can still remember the very first time we seen the Kinetic Avionics SBS-1 in action and the very first time we setup up our own virtual radar system in early 2006. There were literally only one or two aircraft showing on the radar screen at that time, but when we heard the radio communications between the aircraft and air traffic control and then actually watch the aircraft on the virtual radar screen implement the instructions they had just received, we knew then this setup would play a massive role in the future of the aviation and radio hobby scene. Fast forward 15 years and we were absolutely right with virtual radar platforms in all variety of forms being common place within the aviation hobby community.
But what is virtual radar and how does it work?
If you are reading this we are working on the assumption you have an active interest in the aviation hobby scene, and as such, will likely have even a very basic understanding of traditional radar. But just in case lets take a very brief look back in time.
Radar, which stands for RAdio Detection And Ranging, as with a lot of modern technology emerged from the military. Work was being undertaken by many nations in secret but the real advancements came in the build up towards World War II. Although many nations were working on various radar related projects in the early 1920s and 30s, the UKs efforts were being spearheaded by Robert Alexander Watson-Watt and Arnold Frederic Wilkins. During work in relation to a ‘radio death ray’ Watt and Wilkins determined it was impossible to destroy an aircraft with a radio death ray, however it was possible to detect aircraft at long ranges.
By the end of 1935 it was possible to detect aircraft at range of up to 80 miles and the ongoing developments led to the Chain or CH network of coastal Early Warning radar stations built by the Royal Air Force. This network of towers standing 300ft tall played a major role in the infamous Battle of Britain during 1940.
The very basic version of how a Radar works is it transmits radio waves, known as radio signals, in predetermined directions. When these radio waves contact an object, they are reflected back to the receiver which is usually located in the same location as the transmitter. The returning signals can then be processed to determine the location, height, speed and heading of the object. Needless to say the theory is far more complicated and involves a whole variety of variables and some mathematical equations that made our heads hurt. There’s also a whole host of additional factors that come into play as well including interference and radar clutter.
For the modern aviation enthusiast traditional Radar has no real bearing (excuse the pun) on us however but Mode-S and ADS-B are likely to be terms or acronyms which are commonplace.
Mode-S (Select) is a Secondary Surveillance Radar (SSR) process which allows selective interrogation of aircraft according to a unique 24-bit address which is unique to each aircraft. It employs ground-based interrogators and airborne transponders and operates in the same radio frequencies (1030/1090MHz) as conventional SSR systems. The airborne transponders provide altitude and identification data, with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) adding global navigation data typically obtained from a Global Positional System (GPS) receiver. The position and identification data supplied by Mode-S/ADS-B broadcasts are available to pilots and air traffic controllers.
Mode-S/ADS-B data updates rapidly, is very accurate and provides pilots and air traffic controllers with common air situational awareness for enhanced safety, capacity and efficiency.
And all of this information is also available to the aviation enthusiast as well either by using a dedicated Mode-S/ADS-B receiver and associated software, or by using one of the many online platforms now readily available.
The final result is a live time virtual radar which shows all Mode-S/ADS-B equipped aircraft within range of your receiver. If utilising an online platform which relies on data feeds from individual users, you can track aircraft in live time around the globe providing there’s sufficient data feeds in the respective areas.
And this also includes military aircraft through a process called Multilateration – commonly referred to as MLat. A large number of military aircraft transmit Mode-S data but they do not transmit the relevant ADS-B data to allow the virtual radar systems to plot their location within the respective receiver software. We first came across the term MLat many years ago while utilising the software application PlanePlotter. The PlanePlotter software setup correctly alongside hardware such as the Kinetic SBS family of receivers, could accurately identify and plot military air traffic.
The process involves the PlanePlotter software receiving the Mode-S information of an aircraft from multiple receivers, also referred to as ground stations, and through computer processing it can essential triangulate and plot the aircraft’s location. It relies on a number of key software aspects being correct, including an accurate position of each ground station, but is an extremely popular way of tracking military aircraft.
The combination of our SBS-3er receiver and PlanePlotter setup as a fully functional ground station remains our primary means of tracking military aircraft.
The Kinetic Avionics SBS-1 was our very first Mode-S/ADS-B receiver with the very popular and powerful BaseStation software which we first set up in 2006. Through the years, the SBS-1 developed into a variety of different hardware units including the SBS-1er, the SBS 1090 Puck and also the SBS-3. The SBS-1er and the SBS-3 as well as being Mode-S/ADS-B receivers also had an inbuilt airband radio receiver and Software Defined Radio (SDR) included.
The SBS-3 combined with PlanePlotter remains our primary aircraft tracking option, however it appears from some quick research online Kinetic Avionics may no longer be trading and it seems that although some retailers are still listing the SBS-3 as a product, they all appear to be showing as out of stock.
Throughout the early years of virtual radar development, a number of products became readily available including the AirNav Radarbox, the PlaneGadget Radar and the EuroTech Aurora SSRx. As far as we can tell, the AirNav RadarBox and EuroTech Aurora are still available however the PlaneGadget Radar is no longer in production.
A number of other options are now also readily available including the FlightAware ProStick and home build options utilising Raspberry Pi systems but we have yet to venture down this road although may look at some additional project work in the coming weeks and months ahead.
By far the easiest way into the world of virtual radar is to look at some of the online platforms available. There’s quite an extensive array of platforms available and please do not think this list is in anyway exhaustive, but it should give you a good starting point if you are just starting out or returning back into the hobby scene after some time away.
The majority of online platforms rely on data feeds from users so if you have or contemplating getting your own hardware receiver setup, it’s absolutely worth considering supplying your data feeds to your preferred online platforms to enhance overall coverage. Each site which can accept data feeds will also provide an easy step-by-step guide and some even offer to provide the necessary hardware as well in return for a 24-hour data feed at a location with limited coverage.
Tracking over 10,000 aircraft daily from over 3000 active feeds ADSBexchange is described as the world’s largest co-op of ADS-B/Mode-S/MLAT feeders and the world’s largest public source of unfiltered flight data.
Flightradar24 is a global flight tracking service that provides real-time information about thousands of aircraft around the world. Flightradar24 tracks over 180,000 flights from over 1200 airlines flying to or from over 4000 airports around the world in real-time. Flightradar24 also has a flight tracker app available for download.
360Radar.co.uk is a subscription orientated browser-based aircraft tracking system designed to track all ADS-B equipped aircraft within range of our receivers. For those that don’t broadcast their locations our MLAT server calculates their position as long as the aircraft can be seen by three or more receivers. With over 900 receivers stretching across most of England, Wales and Scotland as well as Ireland, we have good coverage down to a few hundred feet above the ground in many places.
Freeradar.UK is a FREE to use aircraft tracking site which includes civilian and military aircraft and supported by donations and users sharing their data feeds. Freeradar.uk doesn’t filter any aircraft or aircraft details. Freeradar.UK also has a free to use app compatible with both IOS and Android devices.
Although not technically an online platform used within a browser, we felt we had to include the PlanePlotter software under online platforms. As well as being an extremely powerful piece of software when combined with an SBS or other Mode-S/ADS-B receiver, you can also purchase a license for the software to use when connected to the Internet to act as your own virtual radar system.
The addition of either a hardware orientated or online virtual radar system adds a whole new dimension to the military aviation and radio hobby and is something that should absolutely be considered if it doesn’t make up part of your current monitoring setup. Enhancements and advancements are routine across all of the mainstream options available and the addition of mobile apps for your smart devices means aircraft tracking is no longer just confined to the radio shack, but can now also go mobile with you as well.
We had previously undertaken some mobile experiments many years ago before tracking apps became regularly available with limited success. Setting up a portable SBS Mode-S receiver and a laptop when mobile posed some significant challenges especially in relation to Multilateration. Now when you are visiting the airfield or heading out to capture some of the action during exercises, all you need now is your camera, your radio scanner and your smart phone with the right applications downloaded.
Without a doubt, the first time you hear an aircraft being passed a radio instruction on the scanner, and then watch the aircraft execute that instruction, you will be hooked. From a military monitoring perspective, being able to track air-to-air refuelling tankers meeting up with fighter jets or escorting bombers across the Atlantic, to tracking maritime patrol aircraft operating over the North Sea seeking out Russian submarines, virtual radar platforms are now just as important to the military monitor as a radio scanner. The global coverage available through online platforms also means your monitoring is no longer restricted to the range of your antenna system either so you can now quite literally monitor global activity from the comfort of your radio shack.
We also want to remind everyone the hardware and online platforms mentioned in this article are not by any means exhaustive and there are plenty of other options available. Please feel free to get in touch and let us know what your preferred virtual radar system setup is and indeed if you are just venturing into the virtual radar scene, let us know how you get on.
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