Just a few years ago, aircraft spotters would make do with scanners, binoculars and maybe a camera.
Today they're equipped with ModeS data receivers, laptops, digital cameras and photo editing software. And those with smart phones can point them at the sky to check the aircraft type, registration owner and where it's going - through walls, mountains and clouds!
Welcome to Radarspotting.com, your online guide to aircraft spotting in the digital age.
Here you will find a dedicated forum, free Guides and other files, useful links and one-to-one help and support on the new radarspotting products and software.
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The cheapest and easiest way to go radarspotting is using an internet connection and web browser.
There are lots of websites where you can track aircraft flying around the world in realtime. Some require a subscription but most are free and a great introduction to radarspotting. As well as tracking flights, you can check the registration and type and view a picture of the actual aircraft. Most sites will also display the flight number and the route. A pair of binoculars can't do that - yet.
And if you have a suitable phone, some websites also offer mobile apps with similar features and some offer augmented reality so you can point at the sky to check what aircraft it is and where it's going.
Moving on, for just a few Euros, you can subscribe to something called PlanePlotter and get more control over the screen layout and configure it to your personal preferences.
The PlanePlotter software runs on your local PC and you can either feed it data from your own Mode-S receiver or just view data provided by other PlanePlotter users if you have an internet connection.
If you want even more control, you'll soon be thinking about getting your own Mode-S receiver to track aircraft without the need for an internet connection, handy if you like spotting at your local airport or away on holiday (but take care as some countries don't encourage aircraft spotting!).
You can choose from a wide range of receivers including low cost kits and ready made solutions such as Kinetic's SBS or AirNav's RadarBox. Kit prices start at around 100 Euros rising to 500 Euros for an off-the-shelf solution with everything included.
If you prefer to have control of your own "radar", you will need a Mode-S receiver.
With prices starting at around 100 Euros for a basic kit, a top of the range receiver with included software will set you back around 500 or more Euros.
The market leader has long been Kinetic's SBS-1, launched in 2005. The last model was the SBS-1eR which also included a software controlled AM/FM radio for VHF and UHF frequencies. This has now been superceded by the SBS-3 which includes two Software Defined Radios and much more, all for approximately 500 Euros.
Then there's AirNav Systems' RadarBox released in 2007. The RadarBox Pro sells for approx 320 Euros and the 3D version for 500 Euros. RadarBox customers can subscribe to its data sharing network for an extra monthly fee.
Until recently these two products had the market to themselves until RadarGadgets launched it's PlaneGadget Radar for 240 Euros. Unlike the first two receivers which ship with proprietary software, the PlaneGadget used the COAA's PlanePlotter software. Unfortunately PlaneGadget Radar has now been withdrawn following stiff competition from cheaper receivers.
Next came Aurora Eurotech's Virtual Radar 3D. Priced at approximately 350 Euros, this includes proprietary software.
More recently some receiver kits have become available, such as the Beast and miniADSB. These receiver kits will require some soldering and will feed tracking software such as PlanePlotter.
More recent pre-built receivers include the microADSB, Bullion, Transponder-Mouse and GNS 5890, all of which work with PlanePlotter.
Depending on the receiver, prices range from just under 100 Euros to over 500 Euros.
With lots to choose from. Make sure you download our free comparative Check List in our Guides section.
Individual aircraft are assigned a unique 24-bit address defined by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization), often referred to as a Mode-S or Hex (hexadecimal) code. This unique address can be transmitted by the aircraft's transponder and/or interrogated by ground based radar. Mode-S operates on the radio frequencies 1030/1090 Mhz.
Without suitable software, the message received by the Mode-S receiver will be of limited use to the aviation enthusiast who would prefer to know the aircraft type, registration and owner. We need software to translate the hex code into something more interesting.
Three of the available Mode-S receivers use bespoke software. The others typically use the PlanePlotter software from the COAA.
Receiver specific software is usually included with the price of the receiver. AirNav Systems charges extra for it's so-called 3-D option and offers a subscription based service to access its data sharing server. PlanePlotter is available for a relatively low cost licence fee or some receivers include a free Lite version.
Typically, all software will translate the received data into a recognisable aircraft and, when transmitted, plot its position on a map. There is usually a database to store historical flight data and update the aircraft details. There are usually many other features and it's best to read through some of our Guides or, where available, try out the time-limited trial or demo versions.
For those of you who like to track aircraft whilst mobile, you might like to try some of the available phone apps. Both Planefinder.net and Flightradar24.com have free and paid for apps for iPhone/iPad and Android devices.
The free apps can track planes on a Google map. For a one-off payments of a few Euros, the paid version adds contrails, aircraft illustrations, photographs, filters, searches and lots more flight and technical information such as routes, registration, hex codes and squawks. Check out the Planefinder.net website for current pricing and detailed specs.
Like Plane Finder, FlightRadar24 has free and paid versions. FlightRadar24 claims the most coverage for Europe with some cover in North America, Australia and New Zealand.
For latest pricing and specs visit the Apple App Store or the Android Market.
Here are some useful links to websites that might be of interest to the radarspotter.
FlightAware Started in 2005, the first to offer free flight tracking for private and commercial aircraft. Its free PiAware software is one of the easiest solutions for tracking Mode-S flights using a low cost SDR and RPi combination. And it shows all available MLAT plots unlike others that block some MLAT flights.
Flightradar24.com Great site to track aircraft on a map, including previous 16 days, and excellent Aviation Database to look up aircraft by hex code, registration and airline.
PlanePlotter Low cost extension for all Mode-S receivers. Share data and plot the location of non-positional aircraft using multilateration (Mlat).