On the radar
While the 2010 Icelandic volcano eruptions and the resulting ash clouds caused a week of air travel chaos across Europe, they were the making of Flightradar24.
“The Icelandic situation was when the media first used Flightradar24,” says the site’s co-founder Mikael Robertsson. “All the biggest news agencies, like CNN and BBC, were using our maps to show how flight traffic was disappearing over Europe. I think on one or two days there were only six or seven flights flying over southern Europe and all the thousands of flights over central and northern Europe were completely gone. On one day during that week we got four million visitors to our site, up from 10,000.”
Flightradar24 is a global flight tracking service, set up by two entrepreneurial computer programmers in Sweden, that provides real-time information about thousands of aircraft around the world via a map on its website and app. The data includes flight tracks, origins, destinations, flight numbers, aircraft types, positions, altitudes, headings and speed. It can also show time-lapse replays of previous tracks and historical flight data.
“We now track about 160,000 flights per day,” says Robertsson. “Which is about 99% of the commercial flights taking place across the world. And we have about two million visitors per day to our website and app.”
Part of Flightradar24’s success comes from the fact that they track more aircraft globally than any official organization or even the airlines themselves.
‘We now track about 160,000 flights per day’
“I think the reason that we exist is because there is nothing else official like us,” says Robertsson. “And we have more and more airlines subscribing to our business products.”
The main asset that Flightradar24 has, and that the airlines and government sources don’t, is people. Or more specifically, a global network of thousands of enthusiasts who mostly through volunteering help collect the data.
The primary technology Flightradar24 uses to receive flight information is called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B). It works via transmitters on aircraft sending out information, such as their GPS positions, to ADS-B receivers on the ground, which then feed the information to Flightradar24.
The coverage from each receiver is limited to about 250 to 450km, which means that to provide global coverage, many receivers are needed.
But Flightradar24 has 12,000 people around the world with ADS-B receivers and 50 more people receiving one every week.
“We are a global company with global users and global receivers, which makes it so much easier to have a global network,” says Robertsson. “People use the kits, which are sent to them free of charge, because they like us and they think our service is cool, so they want to help us get better coverage.”
The business actually began as a hobby project in 2006, when Robertsson and his partner Olov Lindberg were looking for more ways to get traffic to their travel price comparison website.
“We saw that there were receivers on the market that picked up signals from aircraft,” explains Robertsson. “So we ordered them from the UK and installed them in Sweden and realized how much data is available out there. We bought a product that was accessible to everyone, but we connected the receivers together.
“We then created Flightradar24 to rank better on Google and to get more links to the price comparison webpage. But Flightradar24 became bigger than the price comparison site, so we decided to focus on the flight tracking instead.”
Robertsson says that the two million daily visitors Flightradar24 include “plane spotters of course, but also people in the business such as airlines, airports and different service companies that need to know when a flight is arriving, such as taxi companies. And then we have a lot of people who have family and friends flying and who just want to follow the flights of loved ones.”
Robertsson and Lindberg made money by selling the price comparison website. Most of the money Flightradar24 earns is used to pay the 25-strong staff, which is growing all the time, and to gain more coverage, for example, sending out more receivers.
“The most important thing for us now is to keep improving coverage,” says Robertsson. “Right now, we are trying to solve the problem of getting coverage over the oceans. We have trialed wave lighters, which are small boats that we have set up in the North Atlantic Ocean, and we are looking to set up satellites.
“We cover about 80% of the world’s land and maybe 10% of the oceans, but we cover most of the areas where planes are flying. We do not cover the southern hemisphere very well, but there are very few aircraft flying there. So we probably cover less than 50% of the world, but 99% of flights. We want to get 100% coverage, though!”
The only people who don’t like the service are the world’s military. “We have been contacted by the military from some countries who ask us to block their aircraft and we do it – nothing strange about that,” says Robertsson. “But apart from the military, we don’t have any negative comments at all and we haven’t had any problems with governments. We also have very good contact with the different accident investigators in many countries – they really like the data they get from us.”
Having almost stumbled upon the world of flight tracking by luck, Robertsson is now unsurprisingly a big fan of his own tool.
“I like maps and I like real-time data, so this is a combination of things I like,” he says. “It’s cool to be able to see wherever in the world an aircraft is flying and find your friends. It’s also useful to follow in realtime whether things like weather are affecting schedules and if planes are holding or being diverted to other airports. Airport websites don’t provide much information about this. Sometimes you can see that big delays are reported in the media, but you can see on Flightradar24 that everything is working ok. So it’s good to have a source for firsthand information.”
Text: Danny Chapman
Published: March 22, 2017