Monitoring NextGen ATC (on the cheap!)

A key component of next generation air traffic control is Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B). The current FAA mandate is for all included aircraft to output ADB-B transmissions no later than January 1, 2020. But you don’t have to wait to receive and map ADS-B. There is a lot of air traffic to be seen.

dump1090 as viewed via a remote web browser.

Some folks are using complete downloadable images that are set up to feed flight tracking services such as FlightAware. If you’re interested in doing this, The SWLing Post recently featured an article that you’ll enjoy. I wanted to explore whether I could use some items already on hand to see a map of overhead aircraft on any computer on my home network.

I pulled out an older Raspberry Pi Model B and a 4 GB SD-Card and installed a copy of Raspbian Jessie Lite. The Model B has been retroactively called a Raspberry Pi 1 Model B. It is equipped with 512 MB of RAM, two USB ports and a 100mb Ethernet port.

I decided to use a spare older RTL-SDR stick based on the RTL2832U and R820T chips. This USB device comes with a small antenna that I hoped would be good enough to get me started. It is not in any way optimized for the 1090 MHz signals that are used by ADS-B and is roughly 19 parts per million (ppm) off frequency. It cost a bit over $10 at a hamfest a couple of years ago. The designs have improved since the early models were offered. Newer models include a TCXO (thermally compensated crystal oscillator) for stability and accuracy.

I needed software to take signals from the RTL-SDR stick and plot them on a map. That software is “dump1090”, originally written by Salvatore Sanfilippo. I added an install stanza to the Makefile, along with a systemd service file, for a smooth system install. I also needed to install the RTL-SDR USB drivers. The complete installation runs “headless”, meaning no monitor, keyboard or mouse need be connected. Remote management can be done via ssh.

First, bring the Raspbian Jessie installation up to date.

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get upgrade

Add some needed packages.

sudo apt-get install git cmake libusb-1.0-0-dev

Compile and install RTL-SDR drivers.

git clone git://git.osmocom.org/rtl-sdr.git
cd rtl-sdr
mkdir build
cd build
cmake ../ -DINSTALL_UDEV_RULES=ON
make
sudo make install
cd ~
sudo cp ./rtl-sdr/rtl-sdr.rules /etc/udev/rules.d/

Prevent native DVB-T drivers from loading.

cd /etc/modprobe.d
sudo vi blacklist.conf

Add blacklist dvb_usb_rtl28xxu to the file and save. You may now reboot. After the system comes back online, plug in your RTL-SDR device and the driver should load. You may test by running rtl_test -t. If the device is properly seen by the driver you should see the following:

Found 1 device(s):
  0:  Realtek, RTL2838UHIDIR, SN: 00000001

Using device 0: Generic RTL2832U OEM
Found Rafael Micro R820T tuner
Supported gain values (29): 0.0 0.9 1.4 2.7 3.7 7.7 8.7 12.5 14.4 15.7 16.6 19.7 20.7 22.9 25.4 28.0 29.7 32.8 33.8 36.4 37.2 38.6 40.2 42.1 43.4 43.9 44.5 48.0 49.6 
[R82XX] PLL not locked!
Sampling at 2048000 S/s.
No E4000 tuner found, aborting.

Don’t be concerned by the “No E4000 tuner found” message. The E4000 is an older chipset that is no longer used by today’s RTL-SDR devices.

Compile and install the dump1090 code.

https://github.com/K2DLS/dump1090.git
cd dump1090
make
sudo make install
sudo systemctl daemon-reload

Configure dump1090 options.

cd /etc/default
sudo vi dump1090

Here’s what I placed in the file.

# Default settings for dump1090.
DUMP1090_OPTS="--quiet --net --lat xx.xxxxx --lon -yy.yyyyy --ppm 19 --gain -10"

–quiet runs in the background
–net starts a webserver so that you can access via a web browser
–lat set to YOUR decimal latitude (negative for South)
–lon set to YOUR decimal latitude (negative for West)
–ppm if you know the ppm tolerance of your device (otherwise omit)
–gain -10 which sets gain automatically

A full parameter list can be reviewed by typing dump1090 --help.

With an antenna connected you can perform a quick device check by typing dump1090 --interactive. If all is well you’ll see a screen like this:

Hex     Mode  Sqwk  Flight   Alt    Spd  Hdg    Lat      Long   Sig  Msgs   Ti/
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A39D11  S                                                         6     1    4
A25D36  S                     1775                                7     4    3
AAA593  S                     2575  205  075                      7     2    7
A25238  S                                                         4     1   12
A0480B  S                    19650                                8    28    3
ACF4DD  S                     3825                                7     2   14
A41F61  S           FDX3018   2800  211  025   40.428  -74.332   23    83    0
A6FFFE  S     1753  LXJ550   30475  371  226                      8    63    0
C060B3  S                     4625                                6    14    1
ACF69B  S                    23250                                6    25    1
A2D27C  S                    24000                               13    42    2
A0BF90  S                     9500  249  257                      5     3    9
A7D30A  S                    40000                                8   111    1
AE0192  S           SPAR958  32675                               22    93    0
ACC040  S                     7825                                8   146    2
ACA5DF  S                    26600                                6    79    0
A80C7B  S                     4550                                9   108    1
A7CC00  S                     7825                               35   123    0
ACF841  S     1507           14425                               50   132    0
A8C802  S           NKS149   23575  332  216   39.995  -74.262   12   160    0
A61949  S           UAL1105   2725                               14    60    0
AC2E20  S     1006           19925                               22   130    0
AB766A  S           DAL1526   8525  216  038   40.444  -74.213   81   249    0
AA4440  S                     5400  253  066                      6     6   13

Control-C exits this screen.

Now start the dump1090.service.

sudo systemctl start dump1090.service

If all goes well, a netstat -an will show that there is a binding to port 8080.

tcp        0      0 0.0.0.0:8080            0.0.0.0:*               LISTEN

Now you can start up a web browser from any computer on your home network and see a map of planes overhead. If your router supports internal dynamic DNS you can name the RPi and access via something like http://skynet:8080. Alternatively, use the IP address, which can be obtained via ifconfig.

eth0      Link encap:Ethernet  HWaddr b8:27:eb:12:34:56  
          inet addr:192.168.1.123 Bcast:192.168.1.255  Mask:255.255.255.0
          inet6 addr: fe80::1234:5678:8765:abcd/64 Scope:Link
          inet6 addr: fd68:bee:1f21:2221::5/128 Scope:Global
          inet6 addr: fd68:bee:1f21:2221:1234:5678:8765/64 Scope:Global
          UP BROADCAST RUNNING MULTICAST  MTU:1500  Metric:1
          RX packets:990830 errors:0 dropped:418120 overruns:0 frame:0
          TX packets:323700 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
          collisions:0 txqueuelen:1000 
          RX bytes:87491798 (83.4 MiB)  TX bytes:207659746 (198.0 MiB)

lo        Link encap:Local Loopback  
          inet addr:127.0.0.1  Mask:255.0.0.0
          inet6 addr: ::1/128 Scope:Host
          UP LOOPBACK RUNNING  MTU:65536  Metric:1
          RX packets:0 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
          TX packets:0 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
          collisions:0 txqueuelen:1 
          RX bytes:0 (0.0 B)  TX bytes:0 (0.0 B)

In this case, the URL would be http://192.168.1.123:8080.

Once the map appears, re-position it to your part of the world and enjoy learning about what is flying overhead. You can enhance your enjoyment by listening to your closest airport tower or air traffic control frequencies on a scanner. These transmissions use amplitude modulation (AM) and can be monitored an another RTL-SDR stick or a scanner, even a relatively old model.