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A Brief Intro to ADS-B, the Technology that Makes Planes Visible to Everyone, Everywhere

BAW1 and VS3’s routes across the North Atlantic (photo: FlightRadar24)

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has set the world on edge. People are tuning in to minute-by-minute updates of what’s happening on the ground. Avgeeks, while keeping up with the events on the ground, are also looking up to the skies.

Ukrainian airspace has been cleared of civilian aircraft, and all that is really seen on popular flight tracking services like FlightRadar24 are military aircraft. We’ll do dive into what exactly is the technology that lets us see these aircraft movements.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast

Civilian aircraft and military aircraft use automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B), a technology onboard an aircraft used to determine its position and periodically broadcast it. Anyone with a receiver set up can pick up these broadcasts and determine a wealth of data about the flight.

This technology is making its way across the globe to the point that the overwhelming majority of commercial aircraft can be tracked this way. The U.S. requires all commercial aircraft to be equipped with an ADS-B transponder. Many other countries have the same rule, though it is not yet universal.


ADS-B is the preferred method of surveillance for air traffic control as a number of countries for a variety of reasons, the most notable ones being safety and efficiency.

ADS-B allows for greater situational awareness among pilots, as it allows them to see other traffic operating in the airspace. In addition, the more accurate aircraft tracking gives air traffic controllers a more a better and more reliable understanding of where the aircraft is. This works hand in hand with traffic alert and collision avoidance systems to greatly increase safety.

While safety is most important, an extra side benefit of ADS-B is increased efficiency. Since air traffic controllers have a clearer understanding of where aircraft are, they can better guide aircraft in less time and distance. This results in immediate reduction in fuel consumption and emissions.

These transponders broadcast a plethora of data, all designed to significantly enhance aviation safety. Broadcasts are sent out at a varying rate depending on the type of message being sent but it’s always fewer than ever couple of seconds. The information in these messages include latitude, longitude, pressure, altitude, callsign, as well as track and ground speed.

Military Aircraft

The fun part here is when it comes to military planes. For commercial aircraft it’s a requirement among different governments that transponders must be on and broadcasting information. It’s a huge benefit to aviation safety and air traffic control efficiency after all.  The story changes with military aircraft.

Military aircraft are allowed to fly with their ADS-B position reporting turned off. This allows aircraft to conduct sensitive operatives related to homeland security, law enforcement, defense, warfare, surveillance and more without transmitting compromising information about the aircraft’s position.

The air-based military operations currently seen on flight tracking programs in and around Ukraine are there because they want to be made known as a show of force. Military refueling planes are often seen in the skies around Ukraine, it’s a not-so-subtle way of showing everyone who may be watching that there other things in the air that these tanker aircraft are providing support to.

There are other ways militaries around the world track enemy aircraft, but shows of force like these are a tried and true battlefield tactic.

Hemal Gosai


  • Hemal Gosai

    Hemal took his first flight at four years old and has been an avgeek since then. When he isn't working as an analyst he's frequently found outside watching planes fly overhead or flying in them. His favorite plane is the 747-8i which Lufthansa thankfully flies to EWR allowing for some great spotting. He firmly believes that the best way to fly between JFK and BOS is via DFW and is always willing to go for that extra elite qualifying mile.

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