Raspberry Pi Flightradar24: Track Nearby Aircraft?

Tracking aircraft in real-time has long fascinated aviation enthusiasts. With a Raspberry Pi and the right software, you can set up your own aircraft tracking station at home. In this article, we’ll walk through everything you need to know to get started tracking planes with a Raspberry Pi and Flightradar24.

Raspberry Pi Flightradar24: Track Nearby Aircraft?

What is Flightradar24?

Flightradar24 is a flight tracking service that provides real-time information about thousands of aircraft around the world. Their database contains information on flight numbers, aircraft types, positions, altitudes, headings and origins and destinations.

Flightradar24 collects data from several sources including:

  • ADS-B – Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast transmitted by aircraft
  • Radar data – From ground stations and air traffic control systems
  • MLAT – Multilateration calculated from aircraft transponders

This data is aggregated by Flightradar24 to provide a comprehensive overview of air traffic worldwide.

How Does Flight Tracking Work?

Modern aircraft use a technology called ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) to transmit information about their position. ADS-B data is broadcast unencrypted and can be picked up by any receiver within range.

Each ADS-B message contains:

  • ICAO 24-bit Aircraft Address – Unique identifier
  • GPS position, altitude and velocity
  • Flight number, aircraft type, callsign
  • Origin and destination airports
  • Vertical rate and heading

Ground stations and ADS-B receivers pick up these broadcasts, then pass the data to services like Flightradar24. By aggregating data from thousands of receivers around the world, Flightradar24 achieves global flight tracking coverage.

Setting Up a Pi-based Flight Tracking Station

To set up your own flight tracking station with a Raspberry Pi, you’ll need:

  • Raspberry Pi board (any model)
  • SD card loaded with Raspbian OS
  • USB SDR (Software Defined Radio) dongle compatible with ADS-B reception
  • Antenna (for improved range)
  • Internet connection

Suitable SDR dongles cost around $20-30. Popular options include:

  • FlightAware Pro Stick Plus
  • RTL-SDR dongles (RTL2832U chipset)

For antennas, small wire dipole antennas can be built at home, or you can purchase purpose-made ADS-B antennas.

The software tools used are:

  • dump1090 – ADS-B decoder for RTL-SDR devices
  • readsb – Alternative decoder for FlightAware dongles
  • fr24feed – Program to send data to Flightradar24 network

Here are step-by-step instructions to get your Pi tracking aircraft:

  1. Install Raspbian on your Raspberry Pi using NOOBS or Raspberry Pi Imager.
  2. Connect your RTL-SDR or FlightAware dongle to a USB port.
  3. If using an RTL-SDR dongle:
    • Open a terminal and run apt update && apt install dump1090 to install dump1090 decoder
    • Run dump1090 –interactive to confirm decoder is receiving ADS-B data
  4. If using FlightAware dongle:
    • Install readsb using the instructions on FlightAware’s GitHub repo.
    • Run readsb to test that ADS-B data is being received.
  5. Install fr24feed by cloning the software repository:

git clone https://github.com/flightradar24/fr24feed.git 

cd fr24feed

  1. make
  2. Edit fr24feed.ini with your station details (latitude, longitude, etc).
  3. Run ./fr24feed to begin feeding data to Flightradar24.

Once your Pi is online, you’ll be able to see your station contributing aircraft data on the Flightradar24 network within minutes.

Improving Tracking Range

The range you can receive ADS-B signals depends on your antenna and location. Small dipole antennas usually receive aircraft within 50-100 miles.

Options to improve range:

  • Use an outdoor antenna mounted as high as possible. ADS-B is line-of-sight.
  • Build a directional antenna like a Yagi to focus on one direction.
  • Add a LNA (low-noise amplifier) to boost weak signals.
  • For best results, position the antenna with a clear view of the sky and away from sources of RF interference.

With the right external antenna setup, ranges above 200 miles are possible. This allows you to receive aircraft at cruising altitudes.

Connecting to Third-Party Sites

In addition to Flightradar24, data from your Pi radar feed can also be shared with other flight tracking networks like:

  • PlaneFinder – Connect your feed using the PlaneFinder Agent software for Windows PCs.
  • FlightAware – Submit your data to FlightAware’s PiAware receiver program.
  • RadarBox – Upload your feed to RadarBox using their web form.
  • OpenSky Network – Contribute to OpenSky by installing their sensor software on your Pi.

Sharing your feed makes it available to a wider audience of flight tracking enthusiasts.

Additional Functionality

Some other features you can add to your Raspberry Pi radar:

  • Map display using dump1090-mutability to overlay aircraft on OpenStreetMap.
  • Save raw message logs for backfilling missed data on sites like FlightAware.
  • Build a dashboard to show live flight data on a screen using readsb, tar1090 or a similar tool.
  • Integrate with home automation platforms like Home Assistant to create plane tracking alerts and notifications.
  • Add a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) so the Pi keeps running during power outages.

So with just a Raspberry Pi and a software-defined radio receiver, you can create a fully functional ADS-B ground station to share data with flight tracking networks.

Key Takeaways

  • Modern aircraft transmit ADS-B messages containing position data that can be received by ground stations.
  • With an SDR USB dongle and antennas, a Raspberry Pi can decode ADS-B signals from aircraft hundreds of miles away.
  • Software like dump1090 and fr24feed processes the data and shares it with sites like Flightradar24.
  • Improved antennas and clear line-of-sight allows for increased range. Data can also be shared with other tracking services.
  • Additional features like displaying flight data on maps, logging raw feeds, alerts and notifications can also be added.

Conclusion

Setting up your own aircraft tracking station with a Raspberry Pi is an affordable and engaging hobby for aviation enthusiasts. With the worldwide reach of networks like Flightradar24, your feed can provide valuable aircraft data to a global audience.

From choosing the right SDR hardware and antennas to installing decoding software, this guide provides everything you need to get started monitoring nearby air traffic. We’ve also covered techniques for extending range, supplying data to multiple networks and adding more functionality.

So get tracking and see for yourself the satellites, private jets, airliners and military aircraft flying above your home. Your Raspberry Pi radar makes for an educational and practical project that provides a unique view on the busy air corridors of the modern world.

FAQs

Q: Is a Raspberry Pi fast enough to process ADS-B data?
A: Yes, modern Raspberry Pi boards like the 3B+ have enough processing power to decode multiple ADS-B messages per second. Performance won’t be an issue for reading aircraft data.

Q: Can I track aircraft indoors?
A: You need an outdoor antenna for best results. ADS-B signals won’t pass through walls and windows blocks the line-of-sight needed. Outdoor rooftop antennas work well.

Q: What range can I expect with stock antennas?
A: With the small antennas included with most RTL-SDR dongles, expect a range of 40-90 miles depending on your receiver sensitivity and location.

Q: Do I need an internet connection?
A: Yes, the Pi needs internet access to send received ADS-B data to Flightradar24 and other sharing platforms. An ethernet or WiFi connection is required.

Q: Can I use a VPN on the Pi?
A: Yes, VPN software like OpenVPN can be installed. But this may affect feed sharing if your VPN IP address is blocked. Check with the flight tracking network first.

Q: Is a Raspberry Pi radar legal to operate?
A: In most countries, receiving ADS-B transmissions is legal and does not require an aircraft band radio license. But do check your specific country’s regulations to be sure.

Q: What models of Pi work for flight tracking?
A: All modern Pi models from the Pi 3B onwards have enough power. The Pi Zero may struggle with multiple antennas and additional software features.

Q: Can I track aircraft on a map on the Pi?
A: Yes, software like dump1090-mutability overlays received aircraft onto OpenStreetMap or Google Maps on the Pi’s display.

Q: Does weather affect aircraft tracking range?
A: Yes, heavy rain and thunderstorms can attenuate ADS-B signals and reduce range. Aircraft may also fly lower in poor weather.

Q: Do I need two antennas for ADS-B?
A: No, ADS-B can be received adequately through one omni-directional antenna. Two antennas allows you to cover two directions at once.

Q: Can I share my Pi feed with multiple flight trackers?
A: Absolutely! Many trackers like FlightAware and RadarBox welcome data contributions from home stations and allow multiple feed connections.

Q: How much network bandwidth do I need for sharing?
A: Bandwidth usage depends on your traffic volumes but is generally low. Even a basic ADSL connection will be ample for sharing ADS-B data from a single receiver.

Q: Is a Raspberry Pi radar compatible with MLAT systems?
A: Currently MLAT (multilateration) requires dedicated hardware/servers. But Pi’s can provide ADS-B data to augment MLAT networks and services.

Q: Can I run a Pi radar on solar power?
A: Yes, a solar panel and battery pack can power a Pi system outdoors. Use a regulator to keep the voltage steady and a UPS for uninterruptible operation.

Q: Where is the best place to position antennas?
A: Ideally on your roof or attic for line-of-sight. Outdoor positions as high as possible avoid obstacles. Point directional antennas towards your nearest major airport.

Q: What is the typical aircraft detection range at cruising altitude?
A: With a good antenna location and dual band antenna setup, detection up to 250+ miles is possible for aircraft at 30,000 – 45,000 feet altitude.

Q: Can I receive aircraft data worldwide?
A: No, ADS-B reception range is still limited. But if you share your feed, it combines with other receivers globally to achieve worldwide tracking by aggregators like Flightradar24.

Q: Do stealth aircraft show up on flight trackers?
A: No, stealth planes don’t broadcast ADS-B. Some military aircraft use Mode-S transponders which still provides positional data to trackers when enabled.

Q: Does weather affect flight tracking range?
A: Yes, heavy rain and clouds can attenuate signals. Aircraft may also fly lower to avoid bad weather, placing them out of range.

Q: Can I decode military TACAN signals?
A: No, TACAN transmissions are encrypted. But you may be able to pick up Mode 4 interrogations between military aircraft and radar stations.

Q: Is a filtered antenna required?
A: Filtered antennas reduce interference and improves ADS-B reception. But an unfiltered antenna can still work adequately if noise levels are low.

Q: Can I share my Pi radar data via my own website?
A: Yes, programs like tar1090 allow displaying a live website showing your received aircraft data, independent of other networks.

Q: Does the Pi need a real time clock?
A: Not required, but a USB RTC module helps keep logs and data timestamps consistent if the Pi isn’t synchronized to NTP often.

Q: Can commercial aircraft see my home radar tracking them?
A: No, ADS-B receiving systems are passive and do not transmit anything to aircraft. There is no way for pilots to know they are being tracked by your Raspberry Pi receiver.

Q: Is a Raspberry Pi radar legal in my country?
A: In most countries receiving ADS-B data is permitted, but do verify your local laws. Transmitting is restricted and will require an appropriate aircraft radio license.

Q: Why are some aircraft not displaying full reg/flight details?
A: If identity data is missing, it’s likely the airline has blocked full transmissions – often for security reasons on military charters or sensitive flights.

Q: How can I share my Pi radar data?
A: Use fr24feed, piaware, planespotter or upload .csv logs from readsb to sites like FlightAware and RadarBox to share your aircraft receptions online.

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