Back in August of this year we showed how it was possible to use an RTL-SDR dongle, satellite antenna, LNA and decoding software to receive and decode STD-C EGC signals from Inmarsat satellites. We also showed how it was possible to modify a low cost GPS antenna to use as a satellite antenna.
Now a radio hobbyist called Jonti has released a Windows decoder for the Inmarsat AERO set of signals. AERO is a system that provides a satellite based version of VHF ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System). ACARS is typically used by ground control and pilots to send short messages and is also sometimes used for telemetry.
JAERO is a program that demodulates and decodes Classic Aero ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) messages sent from satellites to Aeroplanes (SatCom ACARS) commonly used when Aeroplanes are beyond VHF range. Demodulation is performed using the soundcard. Such signals are typically around 1.5Ghz and can be received with a simple low gain antenna that can be home brewed in a few hours in conjunction with a cheap RTL-SDR dongle.
In the advent of MH370, Classic Aero has become a well-known name. A quick search on the net using “Classic Aero MH370” will produce thousands of results. The Classic Aero signals sent from satellites to the Aeroplanes are what JAERO demodulates and decodes.
Unlike the usual VHF ACARS, with SatCom ACARS you can not receive signals from the Aeroplane only the people on the ground talking to the people in the Aeroplane. This means you do not get the airplanes reporting their position. Instead you tend to get weather reports, flight plans, and that sort of stuff. Just like VHF ACARS they usually use cryptic shorthand notation. For example “METAR YSSY 040400Z 08012KT 9999 FEW040 SCT048 23/09 Q1024 FM0500 05012KT CAVOK=” is the weather report for Sydney Airport in Australia in a format called METAR. It tells you the time, when the report was issued, the wind direction and speed, visibility, clouds, temperature, due point and air pressure. Then it says from 5 AM UTC the wind direction and speed and that the weather will be nice. There are sites such as Flight Utilities that can decode such information and display it in a more understandable format.
In his post Jonti also shows how he uses a modified GPS antenna to receive the AERO signals.
We gave JAERO a test and found that it decoded AERO signals easily, even with low signal strength. To use JAERO tune to an Inmarsat AERO signal in SDR# or a similar program using USB mode. JAERO will listen to the audio from the sound card or from a virtual audio pipe. We recommend setting the AFC (Automatic Frequency Control) setting on on if you find that your RTL-SDR drifts too much.
AERO signals can be found at around 1545 MHz. They only use about 800 Hz in bandwidth. See UHF satcoms page for a list of AERO frequencies.
Remember that some R820T/2 RTL-SDR dongles can have problems when receiving this high, especially when they heat up. If you find that your dongle gets deaf at these L-band frequencies try cooling the R820T/2 chip with a heatsink or fan. The Airspy or SDRplay RSP software defined radios are better choices for decoding signals this high, but the RTL-SDR will work fine if your signal strength is decent and the R820T/2 chip is kept cool.
If you are interested in VHF ACARS as well, then we have a tutorial about decoding that here.