How to Monitor Airplane Traffic with a Raspberry Pi

Let me start by saying I love airplanes. Since a little boy, I always stared at the sky in amazement and spent every waking minute researching everything about airplanes. Fast forward to 1996, I joined the US Air Force...as an electrician on you guessed it...Airplanes (F-15's to be exact).

My passion for airplanes oozes from my pores so much so that my young son is now just as enthused as I am and can call out planes now by sound. Recently, we witnessed the giant Russian Antonov land at a small airfield by our house in Switzerland.

Antonov AN-124

Background about FlightAware Projects

It's not the first time I start a FlightAware RaspberryPi project. Actually, according to FlightAware, I first created my first deployment back in 2017. Alex Ellis piqued my interest when he began making his FlightAware project back in 2017.

What has changed from 2017 till now? It is light years easier to get up and running today. Previously, I was building Docker images and trying to make everything work with the USB Tuner and the container and loading data, etc. It was fascinating to do but very time-consuming.

FlightAware has streamlined the onboarding process considerably and made the PiAware software dead simple. Start by downloading a pre-made Raspberry Pi image with all the drivers, configuration, and getting you up and running in the time it takes to burn the PiAware image on an SD Card.

How does PiAware Work?

Aircraft determine their position using satellite (GNSS) and then broadcasts this signal outwards as an open/un-encrypted radio signal called ADS-B (Automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast). This signal is used by other aircraft and ground radar stations to determine where each plane is positioned and helps avoid navigation and collision avoidance.

FlightAware is the largest flight tracking and data platform. FlightAware collects flight information, metrics, and visualizes this information with its powerful live flight tracking map.  Well, FlightAware collects data from Air Traffic control systems and also crowdsources the info. Here is where our Raspberry Pi comes into the picture.

By creating a Raspberry Pi FlightAware ground station, we collect the ADS-B metrics and send the metrics to FlightAware for visualization. The Raspberry Pi runs the FlightAware software, which provides the interfaces to a USB TV tuner responsible for recording the ADS-B signals.

What you need to get started

The PiAware team provides a bill of materials list to help you get started. You can either use your own Raspberry Pi and purchase a DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial) USB tuner with a small antenna. Building the kit yourself will set you back about $45. If you opt for the more expensive USB tuner and antenna, it will add $20-40 but significantly increase the range.

The process of getting started is simple.

  1. Download the PiAware Raspberry Pi image
  2. Copy the image to the SD Card
  3. Add your configs so it can connect to your WiFi (Headless setup)
  4. Start up the Raspberry PI and connect to the IP
  5. Connect to FlightAware account
  6. Start recording plane traffic

Benefits of being a FlightAware Feeder

Tracking flights

It is a cool project for the family to start tracking airplanes flying overhead, but you also contribute to the overall FlightAware project. Additionally, you receive a free Enterprise Subscription worth $89 per month to the FlightAware platform just for providing your data to FlightAware.

Every kid and sometimes parents in our neighborhood have found out about my Ground station and want to come to see. Fun for all!

You can view my Ground Station statistics here - https://flightaware.com/adsb/stats/user/vegasbrianc

Brian Christner

Brian Christner

Brian is a nominated member of the Docker Captain’s program and a seasoned DevOps engineer specializing in Docker, Cloud Native, DevOps, and Monitoring.
Switzerland