The Future of Flight Tracking

You may have heard of the story of Elon Musk and the 19-year-old with the Twitter bot that tracks his private Gulfstream G650ER’s movements. Musk, of Tesla and SpaceX fame, offered the teen, Jack Sweeney, $5,000 to shut down the account. Sweeney upped the ante to $50,000.

How does modern flight tracking work? How was a 19-year-old able to get access to the whereabouts of Elon Musk, the richest man in the world?

It’s based on a technology known as ADS-B.

What is ADS-B?

ADS-B, which stands for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, is a tracking technology that all aircraft operating in the U.S. are required to have onboard as of January 2020, with extremely limited exceptions. Sorry, Elon: you’re not one of the exceptions — virtually all civilian aircraft capable of flying more than a few miles need to have it.

But first, in order to explain ADS-B, it’s also important to explain how aircraft are traditionally tracked by air traffic control (ATC) radar.

Aircraft are equipped with what’s known as a transponder. When an aircraft that expects to fly by instruments, rather than purely visually (so most flights of any significant length) enters the National Airspace System, air traffic control provides what’s known as a squawk code, which is a four-digit number where each digit ranges from zero to seven. That number is entered into the transponder and corresponds with that particular aircraft’s identification and flight plan in the ATC computer system.

ATC relies on two radar systems: primary radar and secondary radar. Primary radar bounces radio waves off moving targets to locate them. Secondary radar pings an aircraft’s transponder, which reports back the aircraft’s squawk code and altitude. That data is then processed and interpreted by the ATC mainframe computer system for an air traffic controller to use. It’s a generally reliable but dated system.

ADS-B is a much more simplified concept because the data processing happens onboard each aircraft. Instead of the secondary radar system having to ping and “ask” for the transponder information, the transponder openly broadcasts, effectively “telling” the flight information to anyone listening. With ADS-B, a plethora of information about the aircraft’s altitude, speed, GPS location, callsign and even what its autopilot is set to is transmitted over a specified radio frequency. There is no actual radar involved with this process.

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