Introduction to Flight Tracking

October 25, 2017

Imagine a world where you have full visibility over your aviation business. We’re not just talking about knowing where your aircraft are now — we’re talking about having access to a complete, in-depth record of where they were yesterday or months ago.

Or whether or not the maintenance team got a particular aircraft finished and up in the air, as well as a system that lets you know within minutes if one of your aircraft goes down, providing you with a four-dimensional vector so you can locate the crash site.

In 2017, this world is no longer a luxury reserved for big operators with cash to burn. It’s an affordable reality with the potential to revolutionise your business.

Mobile flight tracking puts total visibility and control over your aviation business in your pocket. With systems such as Spidertracks, you get real-time situational awareness thanks to live tracking software that allows you to keep an eye on your aircraft from your laptop, tablet, or mobile phone.

So how does this software actually work?

Most aircraft monitor their positions through some type of onboard GPS equipment. Real-time flight tracking involves transmitting that positional information through some type of data channel from the aircraft to a recipient on the ground. Typically, this data channel is either satellite (which provides coverage anywhere) or GSM/cellular (which requires you to be in range of a cell tower).

Cellular is a lower-cost option — but it’s designed to provide ground coverage and the signal wanes with altitude, so it’s really only ideal for low-altitude and non-remote applications. Cell networks are also susceptible to overload or total loss of coverage in civil emergency situations. In short? Cellular is fine for something like a ground-based work crew, but it doesn’t fully meet the needs of a robust aviation operation.

Satellite, on the other hand, offers reliable coverage even in remote regions. Because they don’t usually have ground-based infrastructure in coverage areas, satellite networks aren’t affected by localised factors that may interrupt service (such as natural disasters), making them ideal for low-cost tracking of aviation assets.

The two main satellite providers for aviation tracking products are Inmarsat and Iridium — and Spidertracks uses the latter.

What is Iridium, and what’s the difference between it and Inmarsat?

Iridium is a low earth-orbiting (LEO) constellation comprised of 66 satellites operating approximately 700 kilometres above Earth’s surface. There are 11 satellites each in six planes that sit 30 degrees apart, providing pole-to-pole coverage in a way no other network does.

The Iridium satellites are also cross-linked, meaning they ping data back and forth to each other to find the fastest route to an Earth station. This results in a network with very low latency; on average, it takes only 10 to 25 seconds to process and display position points from the time they’re sent.

This low latency combines with Iridium’s short burst data (SBD) protocol — which enables small data packages to be transmitted at low cost — to create an ideal system for relatively inexpensive aviation tracking.

Now, let’s talk about Inmarsat.

Inmarsat is a geosynchronous constellation operating approximately 35,000 kilometres above Earth’s surface. Unlike Iridium, Inmarsat’s coverage doesn’t extend to the poles, and products that connect with Inmarsat generally consume more power in order to transmit data. As a result, the hardware necessary to operate Inmarsat is usually much more substantial — often high-capacity data links found on commercial airliners.

What information do these networks provide you with?

All tracking systems will give you at least a two-dimensional position and a timestamp, and most will provide you with further details such as latitude and longitude; altitude; speed; heading; point type (normal, distress, other event); local time; and UTC time. In general, these details are presented alongside mapping software and displayed on a website and/or a mobile device to make tracking simple and straightforward.

What are the benefits of a flight tracking system?

With a slew of associated benefits that extend well beyond the rare distress situation, live flight tracking is one of the most important tools an aviation operator can have in their arsenal. Let’s talk a bit about these specific benefits.

Peace of mind

Systems like Spidertracks offer peace of mind for both the operator and the pilot, assuring them that if something were to go wrong, someone on the ground would be immediately aware and able to send help to the right location.

Reduced manual workload

They also reduce workloads in the cockpit and on the ground, freeing operators and pilots from much of the manual work traditionally associated with flying. For example: live flight tracking eliminates both the need to make regular radio calls and the need to answer a sat phone from the ground crew while you’re on final approach. This allows the pilot to focus on what actually matters: safely flying the aircraft.

Increased profitability

Many factors determine the profitability of a business — including advanced safety and risk-management capabilities and the ability to redispatch on the fly in conjunction with the pilot. These enhanced capacities often create behavioural changes that generally result in better resource utilisation and decreased fuel burn and maintenance costs, as well as a competitive advantage that comes from being qualified for many lucrative contracts.

Because flight tracking systems directly influence these factors, it stands to reason that their potential to increase your profitability is vast.


That better resource utilisation we just mentioned? It also has positive implications for the planet. By decreasing your fuel burn and maximising your efficiency (especially when it comes to search-and-rescue efforts in distress situations), you’re minimising your business’s footprint and doing your part to combat climate change.

Which system is right for you?

The aviation tracking market comprises a range of products that run the gamut in terms of cost, functionality, and applicability. The one that’s right for you depends entirely on the infrastructure of your business and your needs as an operator.

We’ve categorised these aviation-specific products into four tiers, according to the level of communication they offer. Spidertracks operates in Tiers 1 and 2.

Tier 1

Generally classified as portable equipment because they’re fully integrated (i.e. internal antennas and receivers), aviation products mount somewhere in the aircraft — usually under the windshield. Most of these Tier 1 products deliver one-way macro messages, have an SOS feature, and may or may not be USFS AFF-compliant (US Forest Service for Automated Flight Following).

This tier generally satisfies the requirements of the recreational pilot and is entry-level for commercial general aviation.

Tier 2

Some aviation products require formal installation, usually relating to the level of connectivity between the product and the aircraft. Some products in this category connect to engine-management systems, the data bus, or an external antenna. Most products in Tier 2 have Bluetooth capabilities, which enable free-form text messages to be sent to and from the cockpit using a smart device.

Typical applications for Tier 2 products include commercial general aviation, business jets, and some of the lower-end air transport operators.

Tier 3

Tier 3 products are almost always installed — and as such, the cost of acquisition, installation, and service steps up significantly. These products enable two-way voice communication and advanced flight-data monitoring (FDM).

Tier 4

Tier 4 products are full data-link systems. While these often provide positional information, they’re not typically considered flight-tracking devices (FTD). These systems cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, and their general application is in commercial airliners.

The bottom line

We hope this quick introduction to flight tracking has given you some useful information and helped you to better understand the lay of the aviation-tracking land. We’re here to answer any questions you might have — so please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Keep up with the latest aviation insights

Subscribe for industry news, delivered direct to your inbox ⤸