From celebrity planes to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, flight trackers are the sleeper hit of summer | Air transport

WAn ant to watch a top-secret government flight? Track the movements of the drug dealer in real time? Or do you know how much Taylor Swift planes pollute the air? They are all broadcast live on the sleeper hit of summer: online flight trackers.

On Tuesday, viewers set new records on Flightradar24, one of the world’s largest flight tracker sites, as they watched the seven hours. Nancy Pelosi’s Journey From Kuala Lumpur to Taipei. The trip, shrouded in secrecy until its last moments, drew international attention after China made military threats in the weeks before the visit, and then set off. Live fire exercises as soon as she leaves.

Several Taiwanese were glued to flight trackers: one told me a friend’s kid had asked to stay awake to watch the live tracker—”like a New Year’s countdown,” said the parent calmly.

Ian Pechenek, Flightradar24’s head of communications, said the site saw “continued, unprecedented interest” in Pelosi’s flight, and at its peak, 708,000 people were simultaneously viewing the little red icon representing the Boeing C-40C speaker — callsign SPAR19 — as It was going around the Philippines to Transcend Chinese rules In the South China Sea, then rose through the Luzon Strait, and is said to be under the watchful cover of Three US aircraft carriersflipped across the mountain ranges of Taiwan before landing in Taipei.

The amount of traffic made Flightradar24 “unstable for some users” and forced the site to restrict access at certain points. In total, 2.92 million people tuned in to part of her ride, about three times the number of people who followed her on CNN in prime time.

Flightradar24 has had some other big moments recently: Nearly 550,000 viewers have traced the journey of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as he returned to Moscow in 2021 to face imprisonment. Thousands more are tracking the US Hawk Global aircraft Travel around Ukraine During the Russian invasion before flying over the Black Sea. Viewers also used the site to follow the chaotic US evacuation from Afghanistan.

The appeal is simple, Pechenek said: “You can get involved in history in real time. If the newspaper is the first draft of history, that’s the prewriting.” The flight tracking data has virtually no delays, providing an initial sense of immediacy. Another draw, Pechenek says, is the experience of watching flights with others and discussing them on social media. Just imagine the attention, Pechenek says, if you could watch Nixon go to China in real time.

It is not only global news events that drive traffic to the site. As the transfer deadline day approaches, it also becomes an essential tool for sports fans. “We see the most interest during the European transfer window,” Pechenek said. “Teams have very dedicated fan bases. They will discover the journey that their favorite player is taking, and they will follow that journey.”

Flight trackers rely on a new, open-standard surveillance technology called Automated Surveillance Broadcasting (ADS-B), which allows aircraft to transmit their locations and other information to anyone with a receiver.

Cables and key ring in a box
Flightradar24 receiver kit. Photo: Flightradar24

Anyone can set up an ADS-B receiver using inexpensive kits. This allowed Flightradar24 to go from two receivers in Sweden, when the site was established in 2007, to a massive network of more than 30,000 receivers around the world, many of them run by volunteers. The receivers have a range of a few hundred miles, although they do struggle with terrain like mountains. To fill in the gaps, Flightradar24 forwards ground-based receivers to data from other sources, including satellites and data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States.

Signing up for government data comes with: Trackers must agree to abide by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that allow aircraft owners to request that their information be removed from public websites. This means that Flightradar24 displays some flights anonymously, although Petchenik cannot identify any of them.

This is where the popular uncensored flight tracker comes in: ADS-B . exchange. The website was founded as a hobby in 2016 by Dan Streufert, an IT professional who describes the site’s policy: “We don’t block anything.” This is possible in part because the site does not subscribe to the FAA’s brief. Instead, it relies on data routed from a network of nearly 9,000 ADS-B receivers around the world operated by aviation enthusiasts and other volunteers.

The Streufert network allows users to monitor flights that powerful people would like to be kept secret. Once, Streufert received a letter from a European lawyer who demanded that the ADS-B Exchange stop tracking his client’s travels. After researching the flight data, Struvert realized: “The guy was working for Gaddafi. He’s been accused of war crimes and killing people and yada yada. I think someone used our data to find out that he was transporting gold from Venezuela to Libya on his private plane, and he didn’t He was very happy to find out.”

The ADS-B Exchange’s open data approach has also allowed citizen journalists to uncover the habits of America’s rich and famous. This year, a 19-year-old programmer named Jack Sweeney created a bot that tweeted an account of Elon Musk Itinerary. Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to take the food (the teen refused).

Kylie Jenner
ADS-B Exchange data showed that Kylie Jenner took frequent short trips, some under 20 minutes. Photo: Maria Alejandra Cardona/AFP/Getty Images

The ADS-B Exchange data made headlines this summer when an environmental nonprofit used it to estimate the carbon emissions produced by stars including Drake, Kylie Jenner, Travis Scott and Taylor Swift — who responded her plane It is “frequently loaned to other individuals”.

But Stuverture sometimes says that high-altitude planes intentionally broadcast their ADS-B data. When the Ukraine war began, you could see the United States strategically operating their transponders from aircraft in the region to send a message of sorts. In a hot area like this, you know they didn’t accidentally leave it.”

Steufert says that official agencies frequently use ADS-B Exchange data, whose base network may capture traffic that official systems do not. “We have many types of inexpensive ground stations where government agencies will likely have much fewer ground stations but much better. There are pros and cons to each method of traffic control. But there is also less routine to access our system.”

Stuffert said the ADS-B Exchange often shares its data with aviation accident investigators and also has contracts with the US Department of Defense. “They don’t really tell us what they’re using it for, but it does help with some of the costs.”

Steufert says sites like his do nothing wrong. We don’t interpret the data—we leave that to journalists, the media, researchers, whoever it is, to interpret what that might mean. But we can share as much data as we want.”

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