Flight Tracking today is handled by a technology called ADS-B that, in a nutshell, relays a signal from the aircraft to GPS satellites and remote receivers around the world. This signal is then interpreted by a free application, such as Flightradar24, that provides real-time updates on departure, arrival, and location of commercial planes.
These updates are then plotted in real-time on a map, allowing you to easily see the movement of your flight anywhere around the world.
Flight Tracking is readily available on any computer, tablet, or smartphone – allowing you to easily track your loved one’s flight, letting you know exactly when they land safely.
History of Flight Tracking
Today, ADS-B is the dominant technology in handling flight tracking. It’s free, used by nearly every commercial aircraft, and accessible to billions of people worldwide.
In the past, however, this wasn’t always the case.
In fact, the first method of flight tracking, called radar, was significantly different than ADS-B, used by Flightradar24.
Whereas ADS-B is based upon signals broadcast by the aircraft, radar is based around radio waves that are emitted by stationary arrays. Radar, short for Radio Detecting and Ranging, bounces radio waves outwards, which become scattered when they hit an object. When the scattered radio wave hits a receiver, that data is then interpreted as an object detected. The movement of the object is detected by the continuing pulses of radio waves that hit the object.
This is significantly different than a technology like ADS-B, where aircraft broadcast their location to listening receivers.
Radar was first invented in the late 1800s through a combination of radio wave and electromagnetic experiments by scientists such as Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, and Christian Hulsmeyer. Hertz discovered that radio waves would reflect off of metallic surfaces, while Marconi noted that a beam of radio waves could be reflected back to its origin. Hulsmeyer took this a step further by using the echoes of radio waves to detect ships and prevent collisions.
Over the next several decades, militaries around the world looked to the capabilities of radar to detect enemy movements.
Radar first came into prominence in aircraft detection during WWII, where the British used it to detect incoming Luftwaffe fighters during the Battle of Britain. The use of radar as opposed to traditional searchlights greatly increased the accuracy of enemy aircraft detection, and helped the British to down many more enemy aircraft than before.
Radar was such a state secret, that the British went to great lengths to hide why their anti-aircraft guns were so successful. They even attributed it to the diets of their gunners – heavy on carrots with that eye-boosting beta carotene. Fun fact, this is where the idea of eating carrots to help with your eyesight comes from: a military cover up.
It wasn’t until near the end of WWII that the next big break through in flight tracking came: Doppler radar. Doppler radar allows a radar receiver to detect the speed of an aircraft without having to wait for two pulses of a radar relay – very useful for fast moving aircraft or missiles. Instead, it relies on the Doppler effect, which states that the waves of an object moving toward you will come at a higher frequency than ones moving away.
Since the radio waves leaving the radar array are at a fixed frequency, the speed of the object in flight can be calculated by grading the returning frequency against the leaving frequency. Higher the frequency, the faster its closing on the set location.
The advent of Doppler radar, while a boon for the military, also was crucial to the burgeoning civil aviation tracking, as it allowed for real-time information on flight patterns and speed.
Doppler radar – while key for flight tracking, also has found another use in meteorology. After WWII, leftover radar technology found a use detecting precipitation. Using its Doppler effects, scientists could not only determine approaching bodies of precipitation, but their speed as well. This development allowed for far more accurate prediction and reporting of weather – which has provided earlier and more accurate information to citizens ahead of impending storms. It’s not exactly flight tracking, but it’s critical tracking all the same!
It wasn’t until the 1970s that aircraft themselves started projecting their position through radio and other electromagnetic waves. This change from passive to active signaling allowed for greater accuracy and consistency of locating commercial flights in transit.
Today’s flight tracking is made possible by a combination of technologies such as ADS-B and radar, which combine to create a pinpoint accurate tracking of every
flight in the air or on the ground.
How do I track my flight?
All you need to do is enter your flight number into our flight tracker at the top of the page. Your flight’s movement will be plotted in real-time on the map above.
Can I visualize flight traffic data?
Sure! Flight tracking doesn’t have to be limited to viewing a single flight. You can also visualize the flight traffic data of any airport around the world. Take Boston for example, simply type in Boston Logan airport to see, real time, the flights in and around Boston – being tracked using ADS-B flight tracking software.
Similarly, if you wanted to track flights over Singapore, all you’d need to do would be to search Singapore or move the map viewer in order to see all the flights in and out of Singapore.
Not satisfied? Why not zoom out to see the entire global fleet? You don’t have to limit yourself to a single city; you can visualize entire countries, continents, and a globesworth of real time data.
It’s pretty mind blowing, isn’t it?
Additionally, when looking at flight traffic per each airport, you are able to see the average delay on arrival and departure for that specific airport. This allows you to estimate how on time your arrival or departure may be for any given trip – giving you more information to make an informed decision.
Why should I use flight tracking?
Flight tracking is perfect for:
- People hoping to track their impending flight
- Friends tracking a loved one’s arrival
- Someone who wants to track his previous flight history
- Hobbyists with an interest in flight tracking.
If you have a flight at 11:00am, and you’re in a cab on the way to the airport, you can easily put in your flight number to see where your specific aircraft is. While your airline will provide you with “departed,” “on time,” or “delayed,” or flight tracker will allow you to see the position of your aircraft.
If you’re at the airport, past security, and curious if you have a moment to grab a coffee before the gate opens, you can simply type your flight number into the flight tracker. Look, the flight is about to land! Get to the gate!
Imagine for a second that you have a loved one coming home for Christmas. Her flight is set to land at 4:30pm. You look up her flight number – the airline says her flight is delayed. That’s a major frustration; you have no idea where in the great blue sky this flight is.
With our flight tracking, all you need to do is input the flight number and you can see, in real-time, her flight’s movement over the map. This way, you can ensure that you are at the airport when her flight lands, not three hours ahead of time.
Not convinced? Imagine this scenario: you’re flying out of Amsterdam to Istanbul when you suddenly get a notification that your flight has been canceled. Why? Your flight originated in Madrid, where you can see that the weather is terrible at the moment – there’s a torrential downpour.
Luckily, with flight tracking, you are able to see that a future flight from Amsterdam to Istanbul originates out of Heathrow, where the weather is perfect for flying. Armed with this knowledge, you are able to snag a last minute ticket to Istanbul and still get there in time for that critical business meeting in the afternoon.
This is just the information you can glean if you want to be an informed passenger! For enthusiasts or even pilots, the benefits of flight tracking are nearly unending.
Additionally, flight tracking allows you to pull up the flight pattern of historical flights. For an additional monthly subscription, these paid services allow you to see years’ worth of visualized flight data from any flight you choose. If you really want to get creative, you can build up a singular map that visually tracks every flight you’ve ever taken!
For the flight tracking hobbyist, flight trackers allow you to visualize the route of commercial flights in real time, meaning that you can use a flight tracker as a powerful tool to locate or identify any plane in the air, and then discover where its final destination may be.
What is ADS-B?
ADS-B is Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast.
It is considered automatic, because no external transmission is necessary. It is dependent because it is dependent on its on-board broadcast systems, which provide surveillance of the aircraft to receivers through broadcasting – meaning it is not a closed communication; it broadcasts its data to any listening post that is able to access it. This last element – the fact that it is an open communication – is critical as it allows any receiver (that can interpret ADS-B data) to receive the communications from the aircraft.
How does ADS-B work?
ADS-B is the major component of flight tracking worldwide. ADS-B flight tracking is completed by the aircraft broadcasting continuous data that is then received by satellites and receivers – from door close to take off to landing. This data is then interpreted and visualized on a flight tracking map.
What’s fascinating is that many of these receivers around the world are installed by amateur flight tracking enthusiasts. These flight trackers exist on houses, on towers, and on thousands of structures around the globe. Each receiver allows ADS-B to paint a more perfect picture of the legions of planes across the sky – making flight tracking more robust and simple than ever.
But what about oceanic flights? Good question! The Earth is over 70% water, and these bodies of water are not conducive to having trackers installed within them. To get over this obstacle, ADS-B receivers are installed on satellites. These satellites work with the ADS-B receivers on the ground to ensure there are no gaps in coverage.
Around 70-80% of all commercial aircraft use ADS-B, with over 80% of flights in Europe using ADS-B and around 60% of US flights being outfitted with ADS-B technology.
The technology itself was only rolled out starting in 2006. Since then, it has gained a reputation for being a key and critical component of flight tracking worldwide, with scores of countries working diligently to upgrade fleets and rollout additional receivers to ensure that flight tracking is as robust as technologically possible. The United States has set the aggressive goal of ensuring that by the year 2020, all commercial flights will broadcast their position using ADS-B technology.
While radar and other flight tracking systems will still be in effect to complement the flight tracking capabilities of ADS-B, ADS-B will the keystone in the global flight tracking network.
Why is ADS-B so important?
ADS-B allows for the continuous broadcast of location by the aircraft – meaning that the aircraft itself lets the receivers know where it is, in real-time. Therefore, tracking doesn’t need to rely on traditional radar to find it. It’s already announcing its position.
ADS-B provides many benefits over traditional radar or other flight tracking technologies.
ADS-B can provide the pilot with key information about other flights relative to his/her position, such as heading, distance, speed, and altitude.
ADS-B is also able to give the pilot key weather information, which will allow the pilot to make more informed flight decisions with regard to avoiding dangerous storms.
It’s this situational awareness for the pilot that is a significant improvement over other traditional flight trackers. Situational awareness leads to an increase in flight safety and a decrease in flight accidents. ADS-B’s robust capabilities improve situational awareness through real time weather, aircraft, and flight restriction information.
ADS-B provides the pilot, the passenger, and air traffic controllers with a much more accurate location of each aircraft, which allows for ease of maneuvering planes in and out of crowded airspace with relative ease. This increase in maneuvering leads to a decrease in flight times, runway crowding, and delays. This means that customers arrive to their final destination in a faster, safer, and smoother manner.
What other types of flight tracking are there?
We’ve covered traditional + Doppler radar, as well as ADS-B. In addition to these two types of flight tracking, there are a few other forms of technology that can track flights.
For flights that do not transmit ADS-B, there is MLAT or multilateration for flight tracking. MLAT is akin to ADS-B or traditional radar, and can be thought of as a hybrid of the two. MLAT transmitters on an airplane broadcast a frequency that is picked up by receivers. When the transmission is received, the receivers are able to calculate the distance traveled through a concept called TDOA or timed difference of arrival. This is not unlike tracking through Doppler radar – the difference being that the plane itself is broadcasting a transmission. Many flights in North America and Europe still don’t have access to ADS-B transmissions, and the MLAT tool allows flight tracking to still remain robust.
After MLAT, there is also FLARM, which is a simplified version of ADS-B typically used for small aircraft, as its range is significantly smaller – less than 100km. For comparison ADS-B covers well over 250km. In some extraordinary cases, coverage can reach up to 400km!
Combining MLAT, FLARM, ADS-B, and government radar data allows flight tracking software to portray a highly accurate picture of any commercial flight in the air at any given time.
Why is radar still so important?
Radar is still a key component of flight tracking. Even if a plane has an ADS-B transponder, radar provides a critical backup in case that transponder stops working. Radar, since the data is created by a source outside of the aircraft, is able to locate aircraft even if they are not broadcasting their location.
What other ways can I track a flight?
Flight tracking isn’t just limited to plugging in its flight number. There are a number of ways that you can use flight tracking to identify a flight, figure out its final destination, or figure out its flight history.
By using a live plane finder, you are able to see air traffic over an airport or geographic area. Using this as a starting point, you can filter out data to then figure out what specific flight might be overhead or landing near your specific location.
If you want to get really fancy, premium flight tracking allows for real time, 3-D visual recognition. This recognition examines a visual of the plane, and then cross-references that with the body of data gleaned from ADS-B, giving you the result of a specific plane with its flight history and final destination.
If you know a flight’s specific location, you are also able to use the map to physically find the plane yourself!
How can I access flight tracking?
All you need is a tablet, computer, or smartphone. On a computer, simply go to https://flight-tracking.org in order to access our flight tracking module. For iOS and android smartphone users, flightradars24 offers a free app that allows for tracking on-the-go. Smartphone tracking enables users to keep real time tabs on their flights, as they are heading to their travel destinations, meaning that there are no gaps in user information throughout their travel experience.
Are there any flights I cannot track?
Yes. Flight tracking is not available for military craft or for aircraft such as the US President’s Air Force One.
Flight tracking is intended only for commercial aircraft. But with thousands of commercial flights every day, it would take lifetimes to comb through all of the fascinating and mesmerizing flight patterns and visualizations that are recorded.
How does flight tracking help in the event of a crash?
Crashes in airlines are extremely rare. Today, the rate of fatal accidents is one in over 2.5 million flights – with 556 people perishing in a plane accident. In the United States, car crash fatalities accounted for over 36,000 deaths in the same time period.
Still, accidents do happen, and flight tracking data can be an integral part in helping locate the missing airliner.
Since flights using ADS-B data broadcast their position continuously, air traffic control centers can see when a flight has veered off course. Additionally, after an accident, flight tracking data can show altitude, velocity, acceleration, and last broadcast location, which allows investigators to create a more whole picture of how the crash occurred.
Flight tracking data has been critical in helping conclude investigations into recent aircraft accidents such as Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
When ADS-B flight tracking technology is combined with traditional radar and MLAT, investigators and researchers can work quickly to find downed aircraft if they have stopped broadcasting, or fallen off of the map of one service. While ADS-B is a groundbreaking technology, it is the union of all these flight trackers that allows investigators to gain a comprehensive picture of any accident around the world.
What types of fight tracking services exist?
There are a number of flight tracking services that utilize ADS-B technology to visualize flight data. Let’s examine some of the most popular services!
FlightRadar24 was started in 2006 as a small-scale hobby and passion project by two Swedish brothers. As of 2019, it has grown to be the largest flight radar in the business. It features over 9,000 receivers that track over 32,000 aircraft in 190 countries. FlightRadar24 allows you to see the altitude, speed, time of arrival, and route of any flight you enter. It also features the ability to see the flight traffic above any given point entered on its map.
Additionally, this advanced app allows you to have a 3D view of the flight in voyage, as well as a visualized view of what the pilot sees in flight. FlightRadar24 also features a cutting edge AR view that gives you key identifying information about any flight simply by pointing your phone’s camera to a plane in flight. It’s truly the best flight tracker in the business.
FlightAware is another excellent flight tracker that tracks just shy of 30,000 flights around the globe. Founded a few years prior to FlightRadar24, FlightAware is still a valuable tracker that allows users to get key data about any flight in their system. Like FlightRadar24, they feature a mobile app that allows for tracking away from a personal computer. FlightAware also features a “misery map” that shows the delays and cancellations at major airports worldwide, providing a “misery estimation” for your future flight.
Don’t forget: you can sign up for push notifications that will message you when your flight is delayed or canceled. Instead of having to continuously refresh your app, your app will let you know what you need to know when you need to know it!
FlightAware is the perfect flight tracker for the traveler – giving you key information to get yourself to your final destination with ease.
Google doesn’t allow you the ability to visualize your flight (or any flight for that matter). What Google does do is allows you to type in your flight and receive any key information and updates immediately. Want to know if your flight is delayed? Simply google your flight number and that information will populate cleanly and clearly. It’s a simple flight tracker when you need simple answers.
FlightBoard is another simple app. It has an easy list of arrivals and departures for any airport worldwide. It doesn’t visualize flight data like FlightAware or FlightRadar24, but it certainly gives you easy to navigate information.
The Flight Tracker
The Flight Tracker conveniently tracks all flights around the globe, giving you updated arrival, terminal, and gate information in real time. It also allows you to sign up for notifications regarding any flight status changes, which can be a real lifesaver when traveling – especially with any tight connections.
The Flight Tracker also can sync with your calendar, and allows you to share your flight information through email or messaging applications. This is a great tracker if you’re looking for up-to-date flight information and need to get that information to interested parties as quickly as possible.
Are all of these free?
All of these apps have free versions, though there are premium subscriptions to certain flight trackers that provide more information.
How much do these premium accounts cost?
FlightRadar24 has four different levels. It’s basic, free version provides you with live flight tracking and limited 3D visuals.
At the silver level, which costs 10 dollars for the first 18 months, you gain access to the free features, plus no ads, alerts, and 90 days of past flight information.
You can also upgrade to the gold level, which costs 35 dollars for 18 months. The gold level includes aeronautical charts, weather information, and 365 days of past flight information.
The most expensive and expansive subscription is the Business level, which costs 400 dollars for 18 months. This is predominantly for businesses and allows for more detailed fleet and weather views. Unless you’re running a business that depends upon a highly robust flight tracker, we believe that the free, silver, or gold should be perfect for your flight tracking needs.
FlightAware has guest, basic, premium, and enterprise tiers of membership.
Guest, which is free, gives you access to 14 days of historical flight data and 20 flights tracked per page.
The basic account is also free, but requires creating a login. This basic account grants you three months of historical flight data, 40 flights per page, and five mobile alerts.
The Premium + account grants you unlimited mobile alerts and five months of flight data. This costs 40 dollars per month.
Enterprise, at 90 dollars a month, grants you a slew of benefits including fleet tracking and eight months of historical flight data.
FlightRadar24 and FlightAware offer comparable benefits at similarly tiered subscription levels. We believe, however, that FlightRadar24 has a more robust offering, and its price point is significantly lower for most subscriptions. This is why we recommend FlightRadar24 as our preferred flight tracker.
Can I help flight tracking?
Absolutely! For less than $100, you can set up a small device that will feed data from ADS-B transmissions into flight tracking programs – or you can apply to host a receiver built by FlightRadar24! If you’re interested, here is a link to Flightaware’s page on how to build and set up your own receiver. Flightradar24 also has a page to become a data feeder at this link.
Feeding data is the backbone of flight tracking programs, and allows billions of people to track flights in real time. If you’re interested in helping advance this exciting cause, you should definitely look into these programs.
Flight Tracking growth
Flight Tracking has entered an exciting and explosive new phase of growth and innovation. Through the introduction of ADS-B technology, flight tracking is able to pinpoint where commercial flights are in real time around the globe. This breakthrough technology allows the flights themselves to broadcast their location to thousands of receivers that interpret the data, allowing informed travelers to visualize any flight pattern in real or historical time by simply entering in a flight number.
Through subscription services such as FlightRadar24, enthusiasts can go a step further and actually track flights through Augmented Reality (AR), allowing them to gain key flight information about flights that are simply passing overhead.
It’s an exciting time to get into flight tracking, whether you’re a die-hard enthusiasts, or simply a traveler who wants to know if you’re going to make that next flight. All you have to do to get started is enter that flight number at the top of our page.