The development of live flight tracking capability is a game changer for our clients with their eyes to the skies.



At Pufferfish, the content we’re most often asked for is an interactive globe application. The reasons for that are obvious; customers are drawn to the appeal of communicating their global reach or telling a story with global impact. Spherical displays are the best possible medium for narrating global stories. Adding elements of interactivity, we can create user journeys for greater engagement.

The real star power within our unique spherical displays is the software that powers that experience. PufferPrime® facilitates the creation of layers of information and data, enabling us to develop complex touch applications and allowing us to integrate with external systems.

All PufferSphere® systems now come equipped with high-spec networking capabilities providing stable online access, ability to securely join existing networks, generate dedicated local networks and connect wirelessly. This change allows us to incorporate live, updating information and create integrations that pull in live, real-time data such as social media activity (see TwitterSphere), meteorological data and of course, flight tracking.

The global aviation industry and the 10 million jobs it supports are critical to world prosperity. In just the single month that Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud (you know I Googled that spelling) blotted northern European skies, the volcano shaved $4.7 billion off the global economy

Live tracking facilitates incredibly powerful applications for our customers, with clients in the public sector, aviation, insurance and energy already implementing this functionality. Enabling live data allows for better understanding and use of information, supporting risk analysis and decision-making. Live flight tracking in particular, not only has a functional use but is a fascinating tool. Seeing those little planes swarming on the PufferSphere I can’t help but equate it to the thousands of people up in the air, with their lives in the hands of their pilots.

So, how did we create this new tool?

With the means of pulling in live data to the PufferSphere established, we looked to obtain our data from the best possible source. Plotting planes on a globe interface might sound simple enough but in reality, it is a huge amount of data.

Taking data from air traffic control systems in 50 plus countries, their own network of ground and space-based surveillance, and data link information, FlightAware has become the world's largest flight-tracking data company. They provide over 10,000 aircraft operators and 12 million passengers with global flight-tracking data.

We faced some interesting challenges when developing the integration with FlightAware, the first of which was developing a python tool to create a graphic that displays all serviced routes at once. Additionally, the codes utilised are the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) codes rather than the IATA (International Air Transport Association) codes we’re all familiar with. With ICAO, Heathrow’s ‘LHR’ becomes ‘EGLL’. While this would work fine for stakeholders within the aviation industry, it wouldn’t work at all for the general public. Our solution was to create a system that would implement a translation between the two.

We also had to consider how to handle changes to schedules like delays or cancellations. To do this we created a list of all flights in a 24-hour window based on the original flight schedules. We chose to look 12 hours into the past to make sure we miss no planes that have been delayed and 12 hours into the future to get enough data so we don’t need to rebuild a schedule throughout a day of normal operation.

The biggest challenge we faced during development was discovering that the API, FlightXML3 Beta, did not yet support obtaining the exact position of each plane. There’s a general confusion about locating planes, particularly when related to air disasters. If we can pinpoint our smartphones anywhere in the world, why can’t we do the same with planes? The only way aeroplanes can broadcast their location is via a network of dedicated ground receivers or nearby planes. This isn’t of much help when flying over vast oceans. So, while the plane knows where it is, the people on the ground have to rely on it regularly broadcasting its location.

Once a plane is en-route, FlightAware gets position updates from the plane via radar and ground surveillance. This information is then combined by FlightAware’s software, which uses it to determine the plane’s estimated time of arrival, and displays the aggregate data on its website. However, it does not provide this information in the API.

Because we can’t simply ask for the plane’s current location information, we have to ask its track. The flight track is the list of all positions the plane has been in since take-off. We use the most recent addition to this track to know the last recorded position. Right now, this is a cumbersome workaround but the rollout of this functionality is expected from FlightAware soon.

That completed, we have a globe interface with plotted airports, recognisable airport codes, live moving aircraft, equipment registrations and dynamic flight paths. We can also filter the information by airport, airline or aircraft type. Enter our motion graphics team, to do their thing and add images and optional video layers, to create a captivating application for our clients to use not only in their communication activities, but also within their operational functions.

It goes without saying that from here, ‘PufferFlight’ is expected to develop more functionality. As is often the case with our software roadmap, client feedback will be the driving force behind ‘PufferFlight’ becoming an even more powerful tool.


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