Jump to content
MalaysianWings - Malaysia's Premier Aviation Portal

Cool tools for plane-spotters

Recommended Posts

It’s almost a reflex among avid travelers: A plane flies overhead, you look up and instinctively find yourself wondering where it’s going.


Wonder no more. Thanks to the development of new in-flight tracking tools, you can not only find out where that plane is going but where it came from, how high and fast it’s flying and enough other factoids to earn you elite status as a bona fide aviation geek.


The latest offering comes from Wolfram Alpha, the "computational knowledge engine" that answers inquiries via curated databases rather than by searching the Web. Unveiled last week, the service analyzes information from the airlines, FAA and other sources to provide a real-time view of flights in your area.


For example, typing in "flights overhead" while in Seattle recently returned a sky map with five small airplane icons, along with a list of the affiliated flights. Tapping on the icon or listing for Horizon flight 393 revealed it was arriving from Spokane, Wash., currently 20 miles away, flying at 14,000 feet and viewable 7.5 degrees above the horizon. Oh, and it would be 28 minutes late.


"From the early days [2009], flight information was one of the things a lot of people were typing into the search box," said Alan Joyce, Wolfram Alpha's content manager for socio-economic data. "The practical uses are for anyone who flies a lot or gets roped into airport pickup or drop-off duties."


The service is not without glitches, some of which, Joyce says, stem from delays in the data from FAA. Others, such as the appearance of the occasional star map instead of a flight map during a recent test, suggest there’s still room for improvement.


Still, the service provides a unique alternative to the many flight-tracking apps in which users can only search for one flight at a time, as well as to "plane spotter" apps that superimpose nearby planes on regional maps.


Among the latter, for example, Plane Finder offers a free version that shows multiple planes in the area, a $4.99 version that links those planes to itinerary and equipment information and a $2.99 augmented reality that lets you point your smartphone camera at a plane flying overhead to bring up its information.


Unfortunately, all three receive their data via Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a tracking technology that not all planes are equipped with. During the Seattle test noted above, the service returned a message saying, "There are no planes where you are located," a surprising result considering the test was conducted at Sea-Tac International Airport.


Nevertheless, the prognosis for more and better plane-spotting services is good as Wolfram Alpha fine-tunes its data analysis, more airlines adopt ADS-B technology and more people make the switch to smartphones.


"The ability to see such data through various technologies makes [plane spotting] even easier," said Phil Derner, a longtime enthusiast and the founder and president of NYCAviation.com. "Seeing what's coming and going without needing to be at home on your computer just makes it that much more fun.



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

  • Create New...