Aircraft tracking using a Raspberry Pi – Part 1

If you have been following this blog for the past few weeks, you probably know my feelings about people that are using the Raspberry Pi for what I consider to be inappropriate uses. (Hey, pay attention, I mentioned it yesterday!)
Projects like laptops, cameras and such….. I have called these small computers a solution looking for a problem.
To me, the whole point of a small low power, low capability computer is to find a job where it can just sit and do something that is out of the reach of most off the shelf electronics.

After looking at things for a bit, I think I found just such a job for me……
Aircraft tracking.

I have always been interested in radio, antennas and have really missed tinkering with them.
After all my years as a licensed amature radio operator in Australia, I knew that I was not really interested in talking to people any more (plus the whole accent over the phone = not being understood thing), but my interest has been really peaked with the ‘new’ digital modes.
My love of computers, radio, digital signals, loving all things aircraft and being an introvert finally came to intersection with my discovery of SDR, ADS-B and Raspberry Pi.

We know about the Pi, so lets look at the other two.
SDR is Software Defined Radio. In a nutshell it means that a computer (aka software) has a lot more control over the radio than a human could. In other words, raw data about the signal can be passed to the computer for it to process and decode rather than just audio into a human ear.
This is the breakthrough for a lot of digital modes. Now, alls one has to do is write some software and you can gain access to all sorts of digital modes/information.

But what about the radio itself?
Ah, enter the hacker. Some very clever people figured out how to get raw data out of a TV USB receiver.
In other words, they have found out how to take a small 20 buck device and repurpose it for something it was not meant to do.
Rather than using it to watch TV on a computer (who does that anyway?), it passes the raw data of the signal into the computer for decoding.

Lastly then, we have ADS-B.
Aircraft (not all today, but almost all – and all in due course all aircraft will be required to) have a transponder on them. A simple ‘dumb’ beacon that spits out who they are, where they are (using their onboard GPS) and how high they are.
This data can be picked up by a radio receiver tuned to the right frequency (1098mHz).

Put all this together and you get what I have got going over the past few days…….
In the roof space I have zip tied a Raspberry Pi computer to a rafter, put a USB TV receiver stick into the Pi and a small stick antenna, the Pi is on my network and uploads its received and decoded aircraft transponder data to two different flight tracker services.

Perfect use for a small single board computer. It runs Linux and decodes the data and other stuff.
It’s low power, it’s low maintenance, it’s just cool.

There is some data on my website, it’s on the page right at the end of the menu. (Not all those aircraft are tracked by me, they are all the planes in the database).

Part 2 of this topic is here.

6 Responses to Aircraft tracking using a Raspberry Pi – Part 1

  1. Great site Thank you.
    I’m trying to decode CPDLC DCL Departure Clearances
    PDC are old ACARS and decoded thru ACARSDECO2
    easily but next gen DCL on 136.975 I haven’t seen.
    Have you seen any of this type from your LAX or PHX
    locations? I see disconnects but not DCL Can you help?
    Thank you either way

    • Hi Bob.
      Glad you like the site.
      No, I have not seen any of those messages, but keep in mind that my interest is in tracking aircraft and trying to dig into why they change course/landing etc.
      My goal is to link ADSB with ACARS (or the other way around perhaps), so I have never dug into the CPDLC messages other than to filter them ‘out’ and display them in their own table.

  2. Avatar james dean
    james dean says:

    great site 🙂
    do you feed they have a massive black hole in there USA coverage that you would fill up very nicely for them,there a pretty good team and what they are trying to do for free is unreal,
    if you intressed email them at

    keep up the good work,

  3. Hello, Are you feeding Data to ADS-B Exchange? Your Las Vegas covergae is quite excellent. I’m not seeing your traffic on ADS-B Exchange so that’s why I’m asking, I live in SoCal as well! Anyways, just curious, if you’d like to reach me I’m @aircraftspots on Twitter. Thanks for the awesome Covergae out there!

    • Hi Matt. Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I am feeding some of my data to ADS-B Exchange. Last time I looked, they had great coverage in the Vegas area and I did not feel my data would add anything, so I am not feeding that feeder to them. I can take another look at it and re-evaluate that decision.