Air tracking Eye in the sky: Travel the world in an app
NEW YORK: In early 2020, Christine Dibble had recently retired from the federal government and was eager to travel more, but the coronavirus outbreak put those plans on hold. Grounded at home in Washington Grove, Md., Dibble started to play around with a flight-tracking app, and it opened the skies for her. Flightradar24 is one of several sites that compile public information about aircraft locations, flight paths, ownership records, altitude and more for display in an interactive map. People can see details about planes and where they’re heading almost anywhere in the world, including Antarctica.
Dibble, a former technology worker for the Environmental Protection Agency, had little knowledge about aviation, but the app satisfied her wanderlust and sparked curiosity about what was happening around her. “The surprising thing about Flightradar to me is that it triggers my imagination,” Dibble told me. “What are people up there on that plane doing? Are they on vacation? On business?”
Peering at aircraft icons in the app, Dibble feels excited for tourists she imagines on the flight departing a nearby airport for Lisbon. She empathises with parents when she sees the virtual image of an emergency helicopter on its way to a local children’s hospital.
“There are all these stories here,” she said.
Not long ago, the app showed that a small plane flying low near her home had taken off close to a Central Intelligence Agency training base. Dibble, her husband and daughter dreamed up scenarios of a Russian oligarch being whisked away in handcuffs.
Flight-tracking sites are another example of a technology that makes obscure information accessible and relevant for us mere mortals and helps connect us to others. It’s pretty amazing that we can Google whatever we’re curious about or video chat with friends far away. Following flights on the other side of the world is another marvel.
Flightradar24 started in the 2000s to market a Swedish ticket booking website, its director of communications, Ian Petchenik, told me. Harnessing a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, the company’s founders and employees started installing ADS-B receivers on rooftops in Sweden to pick up radio signals of planes transmitting their locations to other aircraft and air traffic controllers. The interactive map of air traffic proved more popular than the booking service. The flight-tracking service was born, said Petchenik. Now there are about 34,000 Flightradar24 receivers that people around the world have agreed to put on their homes and commercial buildings and in other spots. Flightradar24 combines those signals with other information, including a database of aircraft owners and commercial airplane flight schedules, to assemble the data in a digital map.
You might be wondering: Is this a safety risk? Representatives for the Federal Aviation Administration told me that the agency limited the available data on aircraft associated with the Defense Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. Air Force One does not appear in Flightradar24, for example. Owners of civilian planes can request limits on their travel data disclosures, too.