RadarBox.com is an ADS-B aggregator which is very similar to other aggregators like FlightAware.com and FlightRadar24.com. These services use ADS-B data provided from volunteers all around the world to create a live worldwide snapshot of current air traffic. The data is then used by airlines, airports, aerospace companies, as well as enthusiasts and regular people to track aircraft and estimate arrival times.
Typically contributors to these services use an RTL-SDR combined with a Raspberry Pi as the receiver. Some sites also use their own proprietary hardware, but they seem to be slowly falling out of favor as the RTL-SDR solution tends to be cheaper and more effective.
Over on our store we now have a limited amount of “Low Power V2” RTL-SDR dongles available for sale for $16.95 USD incl. free international shipping. These are dongles that were produced for the Stratux project which aims to provide a very low cost ADS-B and UAT receiver for small airplane pilots. These Stratux kits typically consist of a Raspberry Pi, two nano RTL-SDR dongles, a GPS dongle and a Android or iOS tablet. The two RTL-SDR dongles receive both 1090 MHz ADS-B and 978 MHz UAT which are decoded on the Raspberry Pi. The Raspberry Pi then sends the decoded aircraft position and weather data to the tablet via WiFi which is running commercial navigation software.
One issue that Stratux users continually run into, is that the Raspberry Pi is sometimes unable to power two or more RTL-SDR dongles. When running a Pi with two RTL-SDR dongles, a GPS dongle, and cooling fan the total power draw is above 1A which can cause power supply problems and glitching. By using a low power RTL-SDR these problems can be avoided by keeping the total current draw under 1A.
The Low Power V2 Stratux RTL-SDR’s draw about 160-170 mA, whereas standard dongles draw about 260 mA, so that’s a saving of almost 100 mA. On battery power this current saving can mean a few hours more of operation. The Low Power RTL-SDR dongle achieves its lower current consumption by using a switch mode power supply instead of a linear regulator which is commonly used on most other RTL-SDR dongles. The trade off is that switch mode supplies are inherently RF noisy, so increased noise can be seen on the spectrum. Despite the increased noise, most applications like ADS-B are not significantly degraded. We have seen switch mode supplies used on some other RTL2832U dongles sold in the HDTV market as well. For example all the R828D based DVB-T2 dongles that we have seen use switch mode supplies as well, and also draw about 170 mA.
We think that these low power RTL-SDRs could be useful in other non-stratux related applications too. For example, they could be used on mobile Android devices. One of the key problems with Android usage is that RTL-SDR dongles tend to drain the battery quickly. They could also be used on solar and battery powered installations to help achieve longer run times. Or like with Stratux they could be used on a Raspberry Pi running other applications, to ensure that multiple dongles can be attached.
Currently we are selling these dongles for $16.95 USD with free international shipping included. Note that these dongles do not come with an enclosure (just a bare PCB), and they do not have a TCXO. Below is more information about these dongles.
Back in November 2016 we posted a review on the Low Power V1 dongles. Since then Chris (the man behind producing these dongles) has brought out the Low Power V2 models which improves upon V1 significantly. By switching to a 4-layer PCB the dongle is now much quieter in terms of RF noise produced from the switch mode power supply, and it also now runs significantly cooler. The dongle also now uses even less power and is more sensitive compared with V1.
In terms of heat produced and power used, the NESDR Nano 2 is the hottest and most power hungry, followed by the Generic Nano, the Low Power V1 and then the Low Power V2. For comparison the NESDR Nano 2 draws 1.362W of power, the generic nano 1.318W, the Low Power V1 1.003W, and the new Low Power V2 draws only 0.933W.
Most people already know about ADS-B aircraft tracking, but few know about FLARM (FLight AlaRM). FLARM is a low cost and low power consumption ADS-B alternative which is often used by small aircraft such as gliders and helicopters for collision avoidance. It is used all over the world, and is especially popular in Europe, however it is almost non-existent within the USA.
Back in 2014 we posted about FLARM reception with the RTL-SDR, and also about the Open Glider Network (OGN). The OGN is an online FLARM aggregator that is similar to sites like flightaware.com and flightradar24.com which aggregate ADS-B data.
Łukasz’s tutorial uses an Orange Pi Zero which is a very cheap (~$7 USD) Raspberry Pi embedded computing device. He also uses an RTL-SDR dongle and an antenna tuned to the FLARM frequency of 868 MHz. The tutorial goes over the Linux commands for installing the decoder, calibrating the RTL-SDR and setting up the Open Glider Network feeder.
Remember that FLARM is typically 10-100 times weaker than ADS-B so a good tuned antenna is required, and the OGN recommend building (pdf) a collinear coax antenna tuned to 868 MHz.
The Pi Zero is one of the cheapest single board computers available, costing only $5 USD, and the wireless model with WiFi connectivity only costs $10 USD. It is powerful enough with its 1 GHz CPU and 512 MB of RAM to run an RTL-SDR and run several non CPU intensive applications such as ADS-B decoding.
The tutorial starts from the beginning by installing a fresh Raspbian image onto the Pi Zero. He then goes on to show how to install the PiAware tracking and feeding software from flightaware.com. Later in the tutorial he also shows how to collect data straight from the flightaware.com API, and also how to build and control an RGB matrix which can display live flight numbers.
The FlightAware ProStick Plus is an modified RTL-SDR designed specifically for ADS-B reception. Its main defining feature is that it has a built in low noise figure LNA, and a 1090 MHz SAW filter. The LNA reduces the noise figure of the RTL-SDR, improving ADS-B reception and thus increasing the number of messages received and the receivable range of aircraft. The SAW filter helps remove out of band signals which can cause the RTL-SDR to overload if they are particularly strong. The Prostick Plus also comes with a TCXO, and SMA connector.
If you are mainly interested in ADS-B reception, or are looking to set up an ADS-B station then the Prostick Plus is one of the best choices you can make. See our previous review here.
We are now reselling some of FlightAware’s Prostick Plus dongles in our store now. They cost $24.95 USD including free shipping worldwide. We intend to sell them mainly to customers outside of the USA, as FlightAware already sell them officially on Amazon, but we offer free shipping anywhere in the world.
A Bulgarian made antenna by LZ3RR – $31 USD + shipping
A Slovakian made collinear antenna by stanislavpalo130 – $25 USD + shipping
A Slovakian made 5/8 antenna by stanislavpalo130 – $24 USD
RTL-SDR stock antenna – Included with generic RTL-SDRs
A 3.5 dBi loaded whip – $3 to $15 USD
In summary the tests seem to show that nothing beats the FlightAware antenna, with the closest in performance being the Bulgarian made antenna. We should mention however, without knowing the real radiation patterns, SWR and various other factors it is hard to say which one will work best for everyone. Different locations/obstacles/mountings could mean that antennas with different designs and therefore radiation patterns work better than others. But it seems that the FlightAware antenna is the top performer in the common scenario of being able to mount the antenna on a roof with a good view of the horizon.
Akos from the radioforeveryone.com blog has recently uploaded some new posts. The first post is a tutorial on setting up a PiAware server with an RTL-SDR. PiAware is the official ADS-B feeder software from FlightAware.com, which is a web service that provides real time tracking of aircraft. Most of the flight data comes from volunteers around the world running a PiAware server with an RTL-SDR, ADS-B antenna and Raspberry Pi. The installation is fairly simple, involves burning an SDcard with the PiAware image, setting up the WiFi and then seeing your receiver online on the PiAware website. From there you can then configure the device further.