At the beginning of last month we posted about an update to JAERO which allows us to now listen to AERO C-Channel voice audio. AERO is a satellite based communications service used by modern aircraft, and it's possible to easily receive the signals with an RTL-SDR, L-band patch antenna and LNA. The C-Channel conversations are typically about Medlink which is a support line for medical emergencies, but other conversations may be heard too.
While it is possible to listen to these conversations, due to legal reasons regarding patents it is necessary to compile the audio decoder manually from source, and this can be quite an involved multi-step process on Windows. Fortunately, YouTuber Corrosive, who has been making SDR related videos for some time now has put up a three part video series on the process.
JAERO was recently updated by programmer Jonti, and it now supports the decoding of AERO C-Channels which are voice audio channels that exist on both the L-Band and C-Band frequencies of AERO. AERO is a satellite based communications service used by modern aircraft. The information transferred are normally things like aircraft telemetry, short crew messages, weather reports and flight plans. It is similar information to what is found on VHF/HF ACARS.
Jonti notes that these C-Channel voice signals are very weak as they are spot beams, so a good antenna system is required to receive them. Over on Jonti's JAERO website there is now some information about these C-Channels (scroll all the way down to the C-Channel heading and read to the end of the page), as well as a frequency list. An excerpt of the information is pasted below:
Inmarsat C and in particular AERO C channels provide circuit switched telephony services to aircraft. The channels of interest are those that carry AMBE compressed audio at a channel rate 8400 bps and voice rate of 4800bps. There is also an older speech codec still in use, LPC at a voice rate of 9600 bps and an overall channel rate of 21000bps.
Telephone channels are two-way duplex. In the from-aircraft direction transmissions are roughly in the 1646 to 1652 Mhz range. The satellite up-converts these transmissions to C band, similar to T and R channel burst transmissions. So it is possible to receive the from-aircraft transmissions although it is significantly more difficult than those in the to-aircraft direction on the L band. So for those who want to get started receiving these transmissions the L band is by far the easiest place to start.
Another aspect of the C channels is that they most often use spot beams rather than global beams which makes it more difficult to receive transmissions for aircraft using a spot beam that is aimed at another region. However if you are inside the spot beam the transmissions are relatively easily received on L band. A 60 cm dish with an LHCP helical and L band LNA will provide excellent results but even with a patch antenna it can be done.
Decoding these channels to audio in JAERO takes a little effort to setup. Due to the uncertain legal status of the digital audio AMBE codec, the codec code needs to be compiled manually first, and then placed into the JAERO directory. Jontio has uploaded the AERO AMBE codec source code at https://github.com/jontio/libaeroambe. Since JAERO is a Windows program, compilation of libaeroambe involves using MSYS2.
Once fully set up with the audio codec, the audio will come out of default soundcard set in Windows audio properties, so ensure that any Virtual Audio Cables are not set as the default device.
On the L-band link you can get conversations from the ground to the plane. The C-band link would get you the plane to ground side of the conversation too, but that is a challenging signal that would require a large dish and Jonti doesn't know of anyone who has managed to receive that before. Typically the conversation topics are things like Medlink which is a multilingual medical support line that can provide backup to doctors or aircrew handling medical emergencies in the air. In Europe the USAF also apparently use C-Channel.
In a post uploaded last month we noted that Outernet was selling off some of their old L-Band satellite antennas cheaply. Nils Schiffhauser (DK8OK) decided to take advantage of the sale and bought one. Now Nils has created a blog post that shows how he's been able able to decode 12 L-Band AERO channels simultaneously with the Outernet L-band antenna, an Airspy R2 and SDR-Console V3. AERO is the satellite based version of aircraft ACARS, and it's L-band signals contain short ground to air messages like weather reports and flight plans. Multiple channels are often in use at any one time.
To achieve this Nils uses the multi-channel tuning capabilities of SDR-Console V3, which allows him to open up 12-channels, each tuned to a different AERO frequency. He then opens up 12 instances of the AERO decoder known as JAERO, and then uses VB-Cable to pipe the audio from each channel into a JAERO instance. Nils writes that the key to making JAERO run with multiple instances is to install JAERO into different folders on your PC, and give each JAERO.exe a unique file name like JAERO_1.exe.
He collects all the data into a program called Display Launcher and Nils notes that the whole set up has been stable digesting 54,000 messages over the last 24 hours.
JAERO is a program by Jonti that was released late last year which allows us to use a SDR such as an RTL-SDR to receive L-band and C-Band AERO messages. AERO is essentially the satellite based version of ACARS, and the L-band signals contains short ground to air messages with things like weather reports and flight plans intended to be transmitted to aircraft. The C-band signals are the air to ground portion of AERO and more difficult to receive as they require an LNB and large dish. However they are much more interesting as they contain flight position data, like ADS-B.
Last week we posted how programmer Jonti had successfully implemented a C-Band AERO decoder into his JAERO software. C-band AERO signals are the earth downlink portion of AERO. Planes transmit data upwards towards the satellites and then the Inmarsat C-band transmitter re-transmits the information back to a basestation on earth. This is different to the L-band AERO signals which are signals transmitted from the satellites to the aircraft. C-band signals are interesting because they contain plane position info, and so can be used to track aircraft much like what is done with ADS-B reception, but over a much larger area. However, C-Band signals are much more difficult to receive as they are at 3.616 GHz and require a 1.8m or larger satellite dish.
Over on YouTube user AceBlaggard has uploaded a video showing an example of C-Band signals being received with an Airspy SDR and being decoded with the new version of JAERO. About the hardware used AceBlaggard writes:
Hardware is a 1.8M PF dish and Titanium Satellite C1 PLL LNB feeding a Prof-Tuner 7301 sat card which loops out to an Airspy SDR.
The two most important things to pay attention to when receiving AERO signals are signal SNR and frequency stability. In order to lock on to the signal, the signal’s frequency must remain relatively stable over a short period of time. For the stability test Jonti writes the following, referencing the image posted below:
You can see the old RTL dongle moves almost 3kHz within a couple minutes after being turned on, this speed is so rapid that JAERO can’t keep up with the frequency changed during this period of time. What’s odd is the old RTL dongle does some fairly crazy stuff around 20 minutes in that lasts for about 15 minutes, JAERO also can’t cope with some of that. The other thing to notice in the old RTL’s spectrograph are vertical lines, these lines I believe are caused by interference entering the dongle between the RTL dongle’s tuner and ADC (analog-to-digital converter).
The frequency stability of the new RTL dongle can only be described as amazing!!! There is not much more than 100 Hz change during the whole test.
The range of frequencies for the SDRPlay is similar to that of the old RTL dongle of about 3kHz. The difference being the transition from the lowest frequency to the highest frequency is slow. Any demodulator should not have any issue tracking this slow and steady change. The only problem you will encounter here is when you are trying to tune into a particular frequency your frequencies will be slightly different depending on the temperature of the SDRPlay.
Jonti also found that in terms of sensitivity the SDRplay was the best at receiving when a non active antenna (an active antenna is an antenna with a built in LNA) was used. The RTL-SDR dongles could not receive well at all when a non active antenna was used. When an active GPS antenna was used the SDRplay was only about 1dB more sensitive than the RTL-SDR dongles.
In his article Jonti expressed concern that the SDRplay did not see much improvement in SNR over the RTL-SDRs when an active antenna was used. Our thoughts on the sensitivity findings are that the SDRplay does not see much improvement with an active antenna because the noise figure of the system is not reduced any further by adding an additional front end LNA (the noise figure in a RF system is almost entirely determined by the first LNA in a RF chain). Adding an extra LNA could even potentially make reception worse by reducing the overall linearity of the system. An external LNA would only be beneficial if a long run of coax was used between the feed and SDR, and in Jonti’s connections he connected the feed and SDRplay with a very short cable. The RTL-SDR only works well with an active antenna because its raw sensitivity at 1.5 GHz isn’t great, and it needs the extra boost from the LNA.
The JAERO decoder for AERO signals on Inmarsat satellites has recently been updated to version 1.03. This new version supports the decoding of 10.5k Aero-H and Aero-H+ signals. The author of JAERO Jonti writes that on these channels he’s seeing significantly more traffic than on the narrowband signals and that he was suprised to see that other non-aircraft messages such news was broadcast on this 10.5k signal. Jonti writes about his experience in developing the 10.5k decoder and his experience with receiving the messages in this post.