Thursday, December 7

From celebrity flights to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan: Plane trackers are the hit of the summer

Do you want to see live the itinerary of a secret government flight? Follow the real-time movements of a drug lord? Know how much Taylor Swift’s planes pollute? Now it’s possible to follow everything live thanks to the new hit of the summer: trackers on-line of flights.

Taiwan, the thermometer of the battle for planetary dominance between China and the US

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This Tuesday, flightradar24, one of the main flight tracking websites, recorded a record number of visits from people following the itinerary of the plane that took Nancy Pelosi from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei on a seven-hour trip. Surrounded by secrecy until the last moment, the visit of the president of the House of Representatives of the United States captured the attention of the whole world. In the previous weeks, China had launched military threats and, after Pelosi’s departure, has begun maneuvers with live ammunition.

Many Taiwanese got hooked on flight trackers. One of them says that a friend’s son had asked him to stay up late to follow Pelosi’s flight live. “Like the countdown to the new year,” says the boy’s father sarcastically.

According to Ian Petchenik, head of communications at Flightradar24, Pelosi’s flight sparked “unprecedented continued interest.” He reached a record 708,000 people while following the little red icon representing Pelosi’s Boeing C-40C, code SPAR19, as it zigzagged across the Philippines. to avoid Beijing’s bases in the South China Sea. Later, he crossed the Luzon Strait under the watchful eye of a trio of US aircraft carriers to end up crossing the mountain ranges of Taiwan and landing in Taipei.

Due to the number of visits, the Flightradar24 page was blocked “for some users” and, at times, those responsible for the site were forced to limit access. Total, 2.92 million people entered the web to follow some section of Pelosi’s itinerarythree times the number of people who followed the subject on CNN during prime time.

real-time history

Flightradar24 has had other big moments in recent months. In 2021, some 550,000 people followed the itinerary of the plane that took Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalni back to Moscow to be jailed. During the Russian invasion, thousands of people followed the flight around Ukraine of a Global Hawk belonging to the US Air Force before it went on to fly over the Black Sea. Internet users also followed from Flightradar24 the chaotic evacuation of the United States in Afghanistan.

For Petchenik, the appeal is simple: “Participate in the story in real time. If the newspaper is the first draft of the story, this is the moment before it is written.” Flight tracker data has virtually no lag, providing a sense of sheer immediacy. Another attraction, Petchenik says, is the experience of following the flights with other people and talking about them on social media. You have to imagine what the interest would have been like, says Petchenik, if it had been possible to follow Nixon’s flight to China in real time.

It’s not just world events that increase website traffic. It is also an essential tool for sports fans when the arrival of new signings approaches. “The greatest interest is during the transfer period in European football,” says Petchenik. “Teams have very dedicated fans who find out what flight their favorite player is traveling on so they can follow him,” he says.

30,000 recipients worldwide

Flight trackers exist thanks to a new, open-access technology called automatic dependent surveillance (ADS-B) that planes use to broadcast their location and other data to anyone with a receiver.

Anyone can install an ADS-B receiver with an inexpensive kit. This is how Flightradar24 has grown from having a couple of receivers in Sweden when it was founded in 2007, to a huge network of more than 30,000 receivers around the world, many of them run by volunteers. The receivers have a range of hundreds of kilometers, although they have a hard time tracking flights in mountainous terrain. To fill in the gaps, Flightradar24 cross-references information from its receivers on the ground with other sources, including satellites and data from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

citizen journalism

The drawback to using US government data is that flight-tracking sites must agree to an FAA rule that allows aircraft owners to request removal of their information from public websites. Hence, Flightradar24 is forced to show some flights anonymously, although Petchenik cannot specify which ones they are.

That’s where another uncensored flight tracker comes into the picture, the ADS-B Exchange. Dan Streufert, an IT professional, founded it in 2016 with the following policy: “We don’t block anything.” It’s possible, in part, because the site is not affiliated with FAA data. Instead, it uses information from a network of some 9,000 ADS-B receivers run by aviation enthusiasts and other volunteers around the world.

Streufert’s network allows users to track flights that more powerful people prefer to keep secret. On one occasion, Streufert received a letter from a European lawyer demanding that the ADS-B Exchange stop tracking his client’s flights. After looking up the information he was referring to, Streufert understood: “The guy worked for Gaddafi,” he says. “He has been accused of war crimes and killing people and blah, blah… I suppose someone used our data to discover that he was transporting gold from Venezuela to Libya on his private plane, and he was not very happy when that came out. the light,” he explains.

The opening of ADS-B Exchange data has also allowed citizen journalism networks to discover and make public the habits of America’s rich and famous. This year, a 19-year-old programmer named jack sweeney created a bot who tweeted the flight itineraries of Elon Musk. The owner of Tesla offered Sweeney $5,000 to remove the information, but the teenager refused.

Data from the ADS-B Exchange made the news this summer when an environmental NGO used it to estimate the carbon emissions generated by media figures like Drake, Kylie Jenner, Travis Scott and Taylor Swift (Swift answered who frequently lends his plane to other people).

Used by the US Government

But Steufert says that sometimes high-profile aircraft deliberately transmit their data to ADS-B: “When the Ukraine war started, you could see the United States strategically turning on aircraft transponders in the area as a way of sending a message. . In a hot zone like that, you know they’re not leaving them on by accident.”

According to Steufert, official agencies often use data from the ADS-B Exchange, whose network of volunteers is capable of capturing movements that official systems do not record. “We have many cheap ground stations, while official agencies have much fewer ground stations, but much more sophisticated,” she explains. “Each way of monitoring (air) traffic has its pros and cons, but accessing our system also means less bureaucracy,” she notes.

According to Steufert, the ADS-B Exchange often shares its data with air accident investigators and has contracts with the US Department of Defense. “They don’t really tell us what they use it for, but it helps defray some of the costs,” she says.

Steufert says that sites like his are doing nothing wrong: “We don’t interpret the data, we leave that to journalists, the media, researchers, whoever, to interpret what it might mean. But we can share all the data we want”.

Translation of Francisco de Zarate