How to Track Flights Live and Why! (Flight Radar)

Greenland InFlight

Regardless if you want to track your loved ones, the pope, or a specific airplane, thanks to some web services, this is now possible, sitting comfortably in front of your PC, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. The data is shown live and for free.

At the same time, you can not only check current flights but also flights that were flown in the past. That, however, is only one of the various possibilities of using this data! You’ll learn more here:

Which Flight Radars are There?

Currently, there are three major flight radars that collect and visualize the data. They all have their different strengths, for which you often will have to pay extra. Here’s an overview:

  • Flightradar24: Founded in 2006 by two Swedish aviation geeks, this has become quite a big company. The web design and also the app is very intuitive. Their blog is also worth taking a look at. They’ve even started a podcast with current topics concerning aviation.
    • Over 10,000 active receivers
    • Free apps for iOS and Android (with ads)
    • Big database with historical data for the past 7 days for free (up to 180 days with a paid membership)
    • Various additional functions for private use from $1.49 – $3.99/month
  • FlightAware: In 2005, this was the first service that made tracking flights publicly available for free. At that time, however, you could only track flights in North America. Only from 2013, data collected by ADS-B-receivers was visualized. The design is not as intuitive as Flightradar24’s, but their free historical data is available for a longer time period.
    • Over 10,000 active receivers
    • Free apps for iOS and Android (with ads)
    • Big database with historical data for the past 4 months, with a user account.
    • Various additional functions with a paid membership (starting at $20 per month)
  • Planefinder: The friendly team behind Planefinder is far smaller, and the number of receivers can’t match their competition, but Planefinder offers some functions that their competitors only offer with a paid subscription. The apps require a one-time fee, and their coverage is absolutely sufficient in densely populated areas, despite the smaller number of receivers.
    They also developed Shipfinder for ships!
    • Apps for iOS and Android for €5.49/€3.59 (or for free with very limited functionality). No paid subscription required.
    • Roughly 2,000 active receivers
    • Extensive free database
  • The OpenSky Network: The OpenSky Network was created by Swiss researchers in 2012. The collected data is made available for research purposes and may not be used for commercial purposes.
    • Over 500 active receivers
    • For free, but not for commercial purposes
    • After registering, all historical data can be looked up.

What Can be Done With This?

You may be asking yourself what all of this is good for. What’s the use of this? Here are some ideas, which could be interesting to people who aren’t necessarily frequent flyers & #AVGeeks:

  • What is that plane up there? Where is it flying to? On sunny days, you can clearly see planes flying in the sky. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what airplane type that is? Then quickly download an app on to your smartphone and you’ll always have an answer to that question.
  • Is my flight going to be on time? If you don’t trust the official information given by the airline, you can easily find out with a flight radar, where your plane currently is. Searching for your flight number, you can quickly find out if the airline already published the flight plan for the scheduled flight. If they have, you’ll see the plane’s registration number (e.g. D-ABNX). If you click on it, the flight radar will show you the current position of the plane. You can then figure out yourself if the scheduled arrival time, and thus your time of departure, is still realistic.
  • What side of the plane should I choose? The descent to an airport will offer you fascinating views of some metropolises of the world from above. If, however, you’re sitting on the wrong side, you’ll often only see the boring countryside instead of the famous skyline. As the direction that the runways are flown into always depends on the wind, you’ll quickly see from what direction you’ll be flying in.
  • What destinations does an airport have? The services have lucrative data, which they even sell to airlines and airplane manufacturers. But even for a normal user, this data could be helpful to find a destination for your next trip. Flightradar24 offers a map and list for every airport (e.g. here for Paris), with all the scheduled flights from a specific airport for the next 7 days, including flight number, time of departure and airplane type.
  • What plane did I fly on? If you like to track your own flights, you’ll probably also write down the registration number of the plane. However, one often forgets to do this. Thanks to the collected data, it is easy to find out the registration number afterward. The web services allow accessing the data of the past days. If you want to go various years back in time, you’ll usually have to pay, e.g. at FlightAware (e.g. for Germanwings/Eurowings flight 4U464 from Cologne/Bonn to London-Heathrow)

How do you use the data and what other ideas do you have? Please leave a comment!

How Does This Work?

All of this is possible because many planes share their position and other data with other planes, ATC, etc. over the Automatic Dependant Surveillance Broadcast (short: ADS-B). As the planes know their own position thanks to GPS, their data is even more accurate than a radar could ever be. The data is also sent out unencrypted, which means that every amateur with a receiver can collect it.

That is where web services, such as Flightradar24, come in. Spotters around the world have their private ADS-B receivers and send the received data to the web service. There are already over 10,000 receivers in use, but they don’t cover every inch of the world. Especially over the oceans, there are still big gaps. That’s why Flightradar24 has an autonomous boat on the Atlantic, that sends the data via satellite.

There are also other data sources, besides the ADS-B data. The American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) publishes radar data. This data, however, has a 5-minute time shift. ADS-B data is usually almost live.

Older planes, that are not equipped with an ADS-B system, can often still be located over multilateration (short: MLAT). For an accurate location, however, you’ll need at least four receivers on the ground. Over the different runtime of the signals to the ground stations, the receivers can calculate the position of the plane. This is nevertheless less accurate than over ADS-B, where the plane sends its own position. As four ground stations have to receive the signals, it becomes quite difficult to track these planes in low altitudes.

Although many planes are equipped with an ADS-B system, not all of them can be tracked with public flight radars. This especially applies to military planes, private jets, and state planes, like the Air Force One. As plane owner, you can tell the services not to show your plane. This has security reasons, but also other reasons too. There are stories, that takeovers of companies have been discovered before the announcement thanks to flight radars, simply by tracking the movements of the companies’ private jets.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of all planes can be tracked without any problems. Even test flights of Boeing & Airbus, or the pope’s plane.

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Comments (6)

  1. Marie Knott says:

    ADS-B is the major component of flight tracking worldwide. ADS-B flight tracking is completed by the aircraft broadcasting continuous data that is then received by satellites and receivers – from door close to take off to landing. This data is then interpreted and visualized on a flight tracking map.

  2. Mick says:

    flight tracker saves on park fees just pick up your friends and family parking fees..

  3. michael b says:

    Its working with the iphone as well (at least with the latest ios) when you know the flightnumber, just type it in and here you go.
    the only downside is, you need to know the flightnumber.

    • Robbie says:

      It’s relatively straightforward for scheduled flights, checking an individual airline’s scheduled departures & arrivals, eg BA/AFR/KLM or even specific airport “live” boards (LHR/JFK) etc.

  4. Christoph Gilgen says:

    Hi Ditmar,

    You wrote “…As the planes know their own position thanks to GPS, their data is even more accurate than a radar could ever be.”

    Personally, I would be very careful to make such statements. ADS-B is heavily dependant on the aircraft stations (e.g. the GPS equipment fitted) and other technical stuff (such as the transmission speed/update interval). This encompasses as well the delay from reception of the signal to showing the target on a display. Yes, it might be true that ADS-B, with well-equipped and sophisticated aircraft with high speed links is as good as radar (this delay is often called “latency”). But many of the ADS-B signals are much worse in accurancy and speed/latency as ATC-radar (which is quite “accurate” and very precise by the way).

    Have you ever tried to sit down on a runway (e.g. Geneva or Zurich, or Frankfurt) and then observing the planes coming in with Flightradar 24, and then you compare the real visual position and ADS-B position on FR24? At this moment you see that the latency, (the lagging of the target) and the precision is not as “good”… It’s quite OK to follow as geek an aircraft, but not more.

    ATC-radar could not work with such bad results (this is not safe). So, I don’t really agree with your remark about “their data is even more accurate than a radar could ever be.”

    • Ditmar Lange says:

      Hi Christoph,
      thanks for your very detailed comment. Of course, you are right. The latency varies, and can sometimes be quite big. Also, it’s not as safe, which is why ATCs use radar. Absolutely correct. This is, nevertheless, mostly still very accurate data, considering how easily amateurs can receive it. Also, the historical data should be absolutely accurate.

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