Travel the world in one app


At the start of 2020, Christine Dibble had recently retired from the federal government and was looking forward to more travel, but the coronavirus outbreak put those plans on hold.

Grounded at her home in Washington Grove, Maryland, Dibble started playing around with a flight tracking app, and it opened up heaven for her.

Flightradar24 is one of many sites that compiles public information about aircraft locations, flight paths, ownership records, altitude and more to display on an interactive map. People can see details of planes and their destination almost anywhere in the world, including Antarctica.

Dibble, a former tech worker for the Environmental Protection Agency, had little knowledge of aviation, but the app satisfied her wanderlust and sparked curiosity about what was going on around her. she.

“What amazes me about Flightradar is that it sparks my imagination,” Dibble told me. “What are the people doing up there on that plane? Are they on vacation? For business? »

Looking at the plane icons in the app, Dibble feels excited for the tourists she imagines on the flight from a nearby airport to Lisbon. She sympathizes with the parents when she sees the virtual image of an emergency helicopter en route to a local children’s hospital.

“There are all these stories here,” she said.

Not so long ago, the app showed that a small, low-flying plane near her home took off near a Central Intelligence Agency training base. Dibble, her husband and daughter dreamed up scenarios of a Russian oligarch being taken away in handcuffs.

Flight tracking sites are another example of a technology that makes obscure information accessible and relevant to us mere mortals and helps us connect with others. It’s quite amazing that we can google anything that interests us or video chat with distant friends. Tracking flights halfway around the world is another wonder.

Flightradar24 began marketing a Swedish ticket booking site in the 2000s, its communications director, Ian Petchenik, told me. Leveraging a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, the company’s founders and employees began installing ADS-B receivers on rooftops in Sweden to pick up radio signals from aircraft transmitting their location to other aircraft and air traffic controllers. .

The interactive air traffic map proved to be more popular than the reservation service. The flight tracking service was born, Petchenik said.

There are now approximately 34,000 Flightradar24 receivers that people around the world have agreed to put on their homes and commercial buildings and in other places. Flightradar24 combines these signals with other information, including a database of aircraft owners and commercial aircraft flight schedules, to assemble the data into a digital map.

You might be wondering: is this a security risk? Federal Aviation Administration officials told me the agency limits the data available on aircraft associated with the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Justice. Air Force One does not appear in Flightradar24, for example. Owners of civil aircraft can also request limits on the disclosure of their travel data.

Petchenik thinks it’s important that real-time information about activity in the shared airspace remains public.

Flightradar24 told me that usage of the tracking service has increased as the pandemic has kept many would-be travelers like Dibble at home. And last week, some people were unable to access Flightradar24 because many users were following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s circuitous flight path to Taiwan, taken to navigate around potential conflicts with Chinese military aircraft.

There are other flight tracking sites, including FlightAware and ADS-B Exchange. But Jerry Dyer and Gilly Prestwood, who run Big Jet TV, an aviation YouTube channel, said Flightradar24 is the app of choice for casual looky-loos and aviation enthusiasts.

Some people use the app to estimate the arrival times of friends and family, and anxious travelers use it to feel safer when traveling by plane, they said. News agencies have used flight tracking services to search for clues about the travels of corporate executives. Dyer, Prestwood and Mindaugas Kavaliauskas, a photographer who published a travel-related picture book, said aviation enthusiasts use apps to track famous or rare planes, watch 3D satellite images from cockpits and debate merits of one jet type over another.

After On Tech asked readers about the technologies that fueled their creativity, Dibble emailed us about his fondness for Flightradar24. I didn’t get the call at first, but I downloaded the app and my mind started racing too.

Now I imagine posh people or tourists on helicopter flights hugging the virtual Manhattan skyline. Last week, I clicked on the icon of a plane that the app showed miles above my neighborhood and saw that it was heading for Paris. Sigh. Lucky.

Dibble knows that an app is no substitute for real-life travel. She will soon be one of those people on a flight to Lisbon that she is monitoring in Flightradar24. But she still looks at the app several times a day.

“It’s a feeling of connection to the larger world,” she said.

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