Weekend Project: We test our homemade ADS-B receiver

IDG News Service | Aug 9, 2016

A recreational pilot puts our ADS-B receiver to the test, monitoring plane traffic mid-flight.

“You can see…I mean it’s an insane number of planes right? If you were to count them that’s a lot.”

It’s hard to believe, but I have information on all the air traffic around me in the palm of my hand. It’s not from the Internet, but thanks to a home-made device that I put together using two radio receivers, a Raspberry Pi, and a GPS dongle. The project is receiving data on speed, altitude and heading sent from other planes through a system called ADS-B. Recreational pilot, Gediminas Ramanauskas, says it’s a huge help in the cockpit.

“Stratux ADS-B receiver is a very exciting project because a home built device that improves the safety of aviation. Up to date, all of the ADS-B devices have been very expensive and really hard to afford. Especially installation in aircraft. Lots of mechanic labor. This way it’s just a small portable device that you’re gonna assemble for $100 and you can spot aircraft, you can see and avoid other aircraft when flying as well.”

We first met Gediminas at Maker Faire Bay Area, where he showed off his home-made receiver and challenged us to build our own. He promised to take us up to test it when we were done.

So here we are, at Palo Alto airport in Silicon Valley, to put our ADS-B receiver to the test.

Even on the ground, we were picking up signals from a number of planes in our vicinity. But it wasn’t until we were airborne that we really started seeing a lot more planes.

“If you zoom out, you can see a lot of traffic. Some of the airplanes are in Napa. You can see aircraft in Napa. It’s way farther than you would ever need to know right?”

“And there is an airline jet passing overhead and I can see he’s 1800 feet above us. See United? He’s at least 5,300 feet straight above us. So if you peek out, he should be passing.”
“Oh he’s right there.”
“Yup that’s the one.”

ADS-B is a system that, when combined with GPS, is more accurate than conventional radar.
It also carries weather data. It’s a traffic management system that Gediminas says is becoming increasingly important.

“Congested areas became really really congested. Imagine San Francisco has so many aircraft flying around. And you know, you have San Jose Airport, and Oakland Airport here. It just became necessary to have better information about all aircraft location in dense areas.”

The government seems to agree. According to a new mandate by the FAA, most planes flying in very congested areas will need to broadcast ADS-B data by 2020. Receivers won’t be mandatory but as I’ve proved, they’re not very difficult to build.

Thanks to our ADS-B system…and our pilot, we make it safely to the ground. Our project was a success. And now we challenge you to make your own ADS-B receiver and go out to track some planes. Even if you’re not a pilot, it’s still run to see what’s flying over your head. Check out our other video for instructions.