The Site That Lets You Track Planes In Real-Time Wants to Track Drones Too

Tiny radio transponders could make drones trackable in real-time.

Jul 3 2016, 8:00pm

Image: Flightradar24.

Flightradar24 is probably the web's foremost destination for aviation nerds of all stripes. Using data from a worldwide network of radio ground stations, the site lets users track the real-time locations of civilian aircraft by constantly updating a live map based on their transponder pings.

Now the site is partnering with hardware manufacturer Skysense in an effort to allow unmanned commercial drones to be tracked too, with new hardware that utilizes the same technology currently used for monitoring planes.

The technology in question is called ADS-B (short for Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast) and it's now fairly standard on civilian planes as an eventual replacement to traditional radar systems. Typically an ADS broadcast includes the aircraft's location, speed, and altitude, but also can transmit identifying information like its callsign and four-digit "squawk" transponder code. By 2020, all aircraft flying in US airspace will be required to send ADS-B broadcasts, which are received by satellites, ground stations and sometimes other aircraft for safety monitoring and air traffic control.

According to a press release, Skysense says it will be using investment capital from Flightradar to develop BCON, a small and relatively cheap ADS-B transponder device specifically designed "to meet the inherent needs of small [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]."

The device is one of several being developed specifically for drones, and the technology could open a whole new world of real-time drone tracking if adopted. Earlier this year, investigative journalists were able to use the ADS-B signals collected by Flightradar to uncover a secret FBI program that uses surveillance planes registered to fake companies to routinely monitor major cities for hours at a time. If the FAA decides that the ADS-B requirement applies to drones, the devices could create accountability for police and federal agencies that are increasingly deploying drones for all kinds of purposes.

On the other hand, depending on how the FAA's drone regulations develop, ADS-B could also lead to privacy concerns among hobbyist drone pilots, whose tiny unmanned aircraft would become trackable by anyone willing to look. Because the broadcasts are unencrypted and unauthenticated, it wouldn't take much to track your neighbor's Fourth of July drone flight or spoof the transponder's signal.