Crowdsourcing is in the air

A FlightRadar24 map showing empty space over Ukraine following the shooting of MH17 in July 2014. Many of the data used for airplane tracking are provided through crowdsourcing. Credit: FlightRadar24

Just finished to read an interesting article explaining how apps like FlightRadar24 and FlightAware are harvesting the data to pinpoint airplanes in the sky.

I thought that such data would come from air traffic control, airports and airlines and most of them do.  However an increasing number of data is now harvested through crowdsourcing, something I wouldn't have imagined.

On the way towards the next generation of flight control a new tracking system is now being used by more and more aircraft: ADS-B, Automatic Dependent Surveillance - Broadcasting. The ADS-B is basically a receiver that captures the GPS positioning data generated by aircraft every 30". This leads to a much better accuracy than the one achievable by commercial radar (around 500m): the localisation is within 10m.

By 2020 FAA is demanding all aircrafts flying the US airspace to be equipped with ADS-B.

Now comes the interesting part. FAA is investing in the deployment of ADS-B receivers but also FlightRadar24 and FlightAware, two small companies that have developed (free) apps to run on your smartphone, are also helping in extending the coverage of ADS-B by providing an open access to instruction on how to develop a do-it-yourself ADS-B receiver and how to share data. The receiver (proposed by FlightAware) is based on Raspberry-Pi and can cost a few hundred dollars. FlightAware is distributing 70-100 of these receiver per month to hobbyists and is encouraging other to develop their own and share data. As of March 2015 FlightAware is receiving data from over 2,600 hobbyists ADS-B receivers.  FlightRadar24 is similarly providing hobbyists with ADS-B receivers, enrolling hobbyists particularly in those areas where there is little commercial coverage and so far has deployed over 6,000 receivers. All together these two companies have achieved a coverage of about 80% of the Earth landmass (covering 90 Countries), and this is based on crowdsourcing. Amazing, isn't it?

It is important to note that ADS-B broadcasts GPS positioning data in clear, anyone can get these data. FlightAware and FlightRadar24 aggregate data from all over the Earth and hence have a complete data base of flying aircrafts (plus all historical records) whilst as a hobbyist you could only get with an ADS-B receiver data from aircrafts flying over your receiver (in hundred km radius).

FlightAware has made its software Open Source and has published APIs to access its data base whilst FlightRadar24 is more closed. 
What is interesting is that we are seeing a crowdsourced infrastructure that would have been impossible just 10 years ago. And even better. The resulting infrastructure is open to third parties to create services and generate business.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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