Aircraft Tracking

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There are several ways of tracking (from the ground or air) airplanes, and we'll try to summarize the options here as well as summarize the pros and cons of each.


Edits: Created by Brett Ferrelll

Option Overview Pros Cons Cost Websites
APRS HAM Radio enthusiasts have erected a network of APRS (Automatic Position Reporting System) repeaters throughout the country that relay your signal. This is aided by some stations acting as "iGates" and forwarding this signal to the internet, making for a wide range of useful applications. Free sites like OpenAprs provide tracking, or you can setup your own website to allow folks to track you from anywhere in the world. Cheap. Buy a transmitter, like the MicroTrack for about $150, install it, and it operates for free. You need to get a Technician Class or higher HAM radio license. It's not hard (especially if you use sites like HamTestOnline), but you need one. Also, coverage can be an issue, particularly out west, where there are fewer people (and HAM radio operators) or significant terrain that might impede your line-of-site to a ground repeater. $150 APRS Transmitter, "Free" - network provided by Hams, free online tracking, just test prep and "low-cost" transmitter Example Track-N44VF
SPOT Spot logo.png
A satellite based signal will track you anywhere in the world with a subscription.
It's satellite based, so coverage is excellent, and can provide improved search and rescue over a standard ELT (similar to 406 ELT with a GPS input). It's a separate unit that you must carry, and typically must have battery power and subscription to work. $100 personal tracker, $100/year basic service, $50/year for "Track Progress" Service Spot adventures
FlightAware FlightAware.png
Website that provides online tracking of United States IFR flight traffic, including SMS or email alerts for file, departure, divert, and arrival.
Most tracking services are free, all you have to do is file an IFR flight plan and then tell people to go to the website. You must be on an IFR flight plan to be tracked. "Free" - Just be IFR qualified, with an IFR aircraft, file, and fly. FlightAware Live Tracking  

APRS / HAM Radio

Edits: Created by Brett Ferrell

Updated: by Brett Ferrell 05/24/2011

APRS is the tracker that I'm personally most familiar with, and frankly recommend. APRS is a specific band (2m) in the Ham radio spectrum that allows for "automatic position reporting". Since the Ham spectrum is free to use, and there is a good network of ham radio repeaters (to forward your broadcast) and igates (to Gate your broadcast to the internet) in most areas of the country you only have to get your license and buy a cheap transmitter.

3d track.jpg
So, the minimum license required is Technician Class. Licenses are good for 10 years, and are free to renew. Get a book or a subscription to Ham Test Online, and you're a few evenings of prep and a 1 hour test away from having your license. It's really that easy, in fact my EAA chapter offered free preparation sessions.

The easiest way into getting your station up once you have your license is to buy one ready-to-go, like Byonics MircoTrak RTG. This bad boy will take 12V from your airplane, and whip antenna internal (I put my behind the false bulkhead), and a serial GPS antenna and start broadcasting away. You could even use this as a low jack should your airplane ever go missing. The microtrak line are really cool, with SmartBeaconing. Basically it will broadcast once every 2 minutes unless it senses your direction is changing. If so, it sends out extra beacons to improve your track by the receiving units.

Free track.jpg
Once your unit is broadcasting, you can find the track on a free website like OpenAprs or build your own. Building your own isn't that bad, and in fact I have offered to host sites on my webserver for my friends using Google maps. All of the broadcast information is available, tail number, speed, course, altitude. You can even build a 3D flight from the track data in Google Earth.

Another cool feature of APRS is that it's broadcast in real time, so it's available for in-flight (ship-to-ship) tracking as well. I hope to experiment with this one myself, but this cool YouTube Video shows how this works in a car. Simply hook up a APRS capable Ham radio (like the Kenwood D710A) to a display (like the Avmap G5) and enter the station/airplane you want to track. Bingo, that station appears on top of your map. This would be awesome for forming up and flying to Oshkosh together! In the air the range of the APRS transmitters should be simply huge.

FlightAware Web Service

FlightAware is a cool, mostly free, service that you might already be familiar with for tracking your friends and family on commercial airline trips. It's very easy to use and provides a nice, clean interface. It also allows you to setup text message or email alerts for flights or aircraft to keep you informed of your target's progress during departure and arrival, but also for diverts and flight plan filing as well. If you fly a lot of IFR, this one is a no brainer, just do it!

From the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) Page

Can FlightAware track VFR flights? What about a VFR flight with a flight plan?
Some VFR aircraft with flight following are available on the position maps but it largely unreliable and arrival/departure/flight plan data is often not available. VFR flight plans are irrelevant and only used by FSS for search and rescue. We suggest ensuring that aircraft are on an IFR flight plan from wheels up to wheels down for proper tracking.

SPOT Satellite Service

Transparent spot3.png

Spot is a subscription-based satellite service providing several different levels of functionality. It can be as simple as a personal location device in case you have trouble enroute, or provide complete flight tracking, and allows you to post pictures to the tracking website from your trips. The downsides are the subscription cost as well as purchase price of the unit, as well as having to remember to take the tracker and have batteries for it. It's simple, though, with no installation required, and someone else is managing the website, so it's easy to use.

Personal Web Pages

Brett Ferrell - N44VF - Where in the World is 44 Victor Fox?
Sam Buchanan's RV - How to site