We would like to give you an explanation about ADS-B in general, a brief overview, what kind of systems are there on the market and what are the differences between them. We are talking about system requirements and problems that could happen. Finally we get some aspects to Multilateration (MLAT), a very powerful method as well to track airplanes without ADS-B broadcast.
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What is ADS-B?
What do you need for real time flight tracking?
ADS-B receiver types
ADS-B public networks
Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) is a worldwide aviation system on 1090 MHz used by aircraft in order to constantly broadcast their current position, altitude, air speed, identification, whether the aircraft is turning, climbing or descending, category of aircraft over a radio message. This functionality is the basic level of ADS-B and known as "ADS-B out”.
The current ADS-B system relies on data from the Global Positioning System (GPS), or any other navigation system e.g. GLONASS, INS. The maximum range of the system is line-of-sight, this means typically 200 nautical miles (370 km), because of the Earth curvature.
The ADS-B radio messages are received by air traffic control stations, and all other ADS-B equipped aircraft within reception range. Reception by aircraft of ADS-B data is known as "ADS-B in". The initial use of ADS-B was for air traffic control, for surveillance purposes and for enhancing pilot situational awareness. ADS-B is lower cost than conventional radar and permits higher quality surveillance of airborne and surface movements. ADS-B functionality also enhances surveillance on the airport surface, so it can also be used to monitor traffic on the taxiways and runways of an airport.
ADS-B is now widely used in air traffic, but not all aircraft are equipped with it. This is especially true for small private and military aircraft. However, other techniques such as MLAT (Multilateration) are used to capture these aircraft in the airspace as well.
The set up of your own ADS-B System can be from very easy to very complicated. This depends on some conditions at your location. In general, you need three things:
There are many ADS-B receivers on the market. Most of them are for use in airplanes and through required certifications they are very expensive. But there are some companies which have their business in real time flight tracking, with some very interesting receivers for commercial and private use. The most important types of receivers are described below.
All ADS-B receivers have no built-in user interface, except for a single receiver. For this, you always have to install your own software on your computer, for example, to process your raw data from your receiver and bring the flight positions and tracks to your screen. Commonly used software for flight tracking is e.g. PlanePlotter or RTL1090. Commercial companies have their own software, especially for ATC cards or special requirements of their customers.
The described ADS-B signals of the aircraft are free to be received, to increase aircraft security they are broadcast signals that should be received by others. The technical outlay for this is low. In addition to a 1090 MHz antenna suitable for the frequency range, an ADS-B receiver is required. There is a big difference between the receivers. Starting with a simple SDR USB dongle solution to a professional ADS-B receiver, there is a wide range. Especially in the lower price segment buzzes a lot of sellers. At this point we would like to present the different possibilities, advantages and disadvantages of the various concepts.
SDR USB Dongle (as ADS-B Receiver)
ADS-B USB dongles are SDR receivers (Software Defined Radio). This means that the dongle has only one adjustable receiving circuit but does not itself decode the ADS-B signals. Due to the broad frequency spectrum of these receivers, a bandpass filter must usually be connected in order not to exceed the receiver. The mostly used DVB-T dongles are made for television signals and do not have a very high dynamic range, so they lose performance in means of sensitivity on long range or situations when strong signals meet weak signals.
To decode ADS-B signals, software logic is required on the computer. This can be done with an extra software, which also usually takes over the representation of the flight movements on maps or special air traffic maps.
In order to have computing power out of your PC, or to save power in a 24/7 operation, quite often small microcomputers such as the Raspberry Pi are used for ADS-B decoding. The receiver front end is represented by an ADS-B USB dongle. These combinations have a higher expenditure on installation components and software modules and are only for freaks and hobbyists. There are, however, providers who offer complete solutions. The reception power is determined as described above by the ADS-B USB dongle.
Pure ADS-B receivers have a receiving circuit precisely adapted to this application and the corresponding decoding logic. Via interfaces (network, USB or serial) the data can be processed for display via an external software. The advantage of a pure ADS-B receiver is the high sensitivity, separation sharpness and overload resistance. This ends in better reception results (long distance), especially under difficult conditions.
This technology means that pure ADS-B receivers are more expensive than dongle solutions. Receivers built for aircraft installations even are high price segmented, because for these equipment expensive test approvals are necessary.
For the ambitious hobbyist, however there are also high-quality ADS-B receivers as prefabricated kits available. The performance is at the level of finished receivers, of course these kits are cheaper, because they are made for handicraft enthusiasts with experience in soldering and assembling of electronic components.
These receivers offer a particular advantage. All components required for operation and user interface (flight tracking maps and more) are already installed in the receiver itself. Access is via the network with a web browser. No extra software on the PC, no cumbersome connection, minimal installation effort. Despite the simplicity, professional requirements such as MLAT, RAW data access via various interfaces and ports, are supported. As well as the possibility to send data to known networks through built-in feeders. Worldwide there is only one receiver on the market having all-in-one features. It's called Radarcape.
The most common form of flight tracking networks are the networks of Flightradar24, FlightAware, Opensky Network, Planefinder and some others. Some content and functions are freely available, others must be booked for a fee.
There are also smaller networks with other features than public flight tracking. Here, the provider runs a server that supports various models such as closed user groups, offers multilateration to localize aircraft which broadcasting only Mode-S signals without positions etc., remote access via a mobile app, fleet watch etc.
Many aircraft don’t broadcast ADS-B messages. This class of aircraft we find in types like Cessnas or military jets. But most of them have a Mode-S transponder. But this broadcast messages don’t have any information about position, altitude etc. With a special mathematical algorithm, called TDOA (Time Delay of Arrival), it is possible to calculate the aircraft position based on data of a minimum of three receivers. With this solution a central server is required for the mathematical calculations. Each receiver send its data to the server. Based on three data streams the position, altitude etc. of such an aircraft is calculated and the result is send to all connected receivers. This central server is called MLAT-Server, and is the base of all MLAT capabilities in an flight tracking network supporting Multilateration. To get a brief overview see also our post about MLAT.