Feeding data to Flightradar24 using DVB-T stick. Part 1. Hardware

So... you want to have a Flightradar24 Premium account for free or you want to make the world better and you decided to start feeding data to this service, right? Well, great! But, information provided by FR4 about installation, configuration and feeding process itself have a lot of crappy and irrelevant parts. So, I decided to write my own mini-serie of articles on how to start, what to purchase and what to look for. So you can avoid all the pitfalls I felt into.

IMPORTANT! Read the next article, about software BEFORE you even plug your DVB-T stick to USB port. If you do this, you'll waste some additional time on uninstalling Windows drivers, which are completely useless in this scenario (since we want to receive flight data, not the actual TV signal, right).

Note, that these articles doesn't contain too much of own research. Most of the texts are based on information provided by FR24. I'm only making complex things simple in this blog post and I'm correcting crappy stuff, they've forgot to correct. Information provided in this article may be useful for feeders feeding data to flight trackers other than Flightradar24, but I can not guarantee this.

What to buy

Before we even start, we need to get a hardware. Thanks to 3rd party drivers available on market, you can receive (and feed to FR24) flight data from nearby airplanes using simple television DVB-T USB stick and reduce your private investments from 400-1000 Euro to around 23 Euro in Europe or 25 USD in USA (for dongle only, without antenna, mast, antenna cable and shipping costs) or even cheaper from China.

All right. We need exactly this stuff. An ADS-B USB dongle with RTL2832 and R820T chips on-board. This link is for purchases in Europe an nearby. For shopping in USA, consider shopping at NooElec and purchasing NESDR Mini SDR & DVB-T USB Stick. This one is even cheaper and includes pilot (totally useless for you, if you only want to feed FR24 data), but only for buyers in USA as overseas shipping costs to Europe or rest of the world may be an overkill in this case. If you're patient (see below!) you may consider Amazon or eBay.

Keep in mind, that It is not 2-3 weeks as they write in FR24. Purchases to most parts of the world from China takes up usually 4-6 weeks, including the fact, that they sell stuff, they don't actually have or you have 75% chances that your package will stuck somewhere in the airport and therefore expect, that your actual shipment starts not earlier than one working week after you pay. Plus, add 25-50% chances, that you'll receive DOA (dead on arrival), which you'll have to send back on your cost (check shipments from your country to China -- even cheapest price can be another overkill for you), before you get another shipment. And only then you have the entire picture of how much it will take to ship your hardware from China.

Sure thing, that you may have receive full working device quickly. Sure thing, that not all packages get stuck on China airports and that some China sellers doesn't require return at all for cheap devices or have collection warehouses across Europe or USA. I'm not trying to convince you, that buying directly from China is a beginning of all hell. I did some purchases from there in the past (though I bought my ADS-B USB dongle in Europe). I'm just trying to tell you, what the most common issues, when buying in China and that 2-3 week terms given by FR24 are more like to become dream than the reality.

To summarize, I'm totally not convinced, if saving these few bucks on purchases from China is worth itself? If Mode-S Beast or prices around 400-1000 EUR/USD would be on stakes, then OK. But, for 25 EUR/USD dongle? Anyway, I was ready to pay more (even 3-4 times more in some cases), but to get my stuff within 4-6 days, not 4-6 weeks. And I don't buy in China any more! :)

Using TV antenna

Since you're actually purchasing a television stick, you may be asking yourself, whether you could possibly use your external television antenna to get better coverage?

It depends (as always) on may factors. From my personal research, I can tell you that the answer is "No".

You can connect your DVB-T stick to your television antenna. You need an IEC-to-MCX adapter, like this. Most DVB-T sticks comes with it included, but purchases on jetvision.de does not include it and it must be bought separately. But, it may soon turn out, that it is pretty useless for you.

From my (very, very limited) electronic knowledge and from my own observations comes sad reality, that TV antennas aren't to good for receiving 1090 MHz signals. I've spent half hours on constantly switching signal source for my DVB-T stick from huge external TV antenna (mounted on the roof) to tiny internal antenna (placed indoor and quite far from the window!), that came with by DVB-T stick. And I have reached 2-3 times better efficiency in second scenario (!).

My internal antenna was able to receive and decode 3-5 packets per seconds and had no problems reaching level of 10-15 packets per second or even sometimes pass through 20 packets per second barrier. While my external TV antenna was constantly running on 1-2 packets per seconds efficiency, barely ever passing 3 packets per second barrier and standing on 0 packets per seconds level (no receive at all) for long periods of time. Sure thing, that even my best efficiency is far, far below, what others gets. As some of FR24 feeders runs constantly on 200 packets per second level. But, for comparison of signal sources, these numbers are enough.

Using WiFi antenna

Then maybe consider using WiFi external antenna to boost efficiency?

Again, you can. You need to connect SMA cable from your wireless antenna to MCX connector in your DVB-T stick. You can use either simple adapter or pigtail cable. However, I can't tell you, if this combination will work, because I did not performed any tests myself.

And my electronic knowledge is simply to limited to tell something more. I can only add, that since antennas offered by jetvision.de looks quite very similar to WiFi antennas, we may assume, that such combination will work and will offer better efficiency than TV antennas.

One thing seems sure. You need to use a directional tubular antenna and place it directly top to the sky (some says about 1 degree inclination). Any other kind of equipment, like omnidirectional antennas or Yagi antenna won't work or won't give you best results.

The truth and reality is, that if you want to get a really strong signal, you need dedicated external antenna, dedicated cable and even consider some kind of filter and signal enhancer. It's like riding to some destination. You can get there on foot or on bike. And you can use BMW. Or a private jet.

Something better than DVB-T stick.

DVB-T USB dongles are cheap, but also provide you with a small efficiency. And -- of course -- require a computer with USB port (and probably Windows -- as most software for DVB-T sticks is provided for this system only) to be running 24/7. Plus, you have to play a little with custom drivers, as described in this article.

If you're thinking (dreaming?) about something more powerful or would like to have separate, standalone data receiver and decoder, that does not require running computer to work, then consider hardware from jetvision.de / modesbeast.com or from anteni.net.

But, in this case, we're not talking about 25 EUR / USD, but about prices, that starts from...

1. anteni.net / ADS-B receiver -- from 145 EUR (IP-WiF​i receiver) to 1000 EUR (ADS-B multi receiver),

2. jetvision.de / Mode-S Beast -- from 235 EUR (bare kit, without case, to be assembled by you) to 285 EUR (fully functional device, with aluminium case and assembled in shop),

3. jetvision.de / Radarcape -- from 625 (bare receiver) to 800 EUR (with mast, cable and antenna).

You can find a way more around Internet. But, no matter how long you're going to seek, one thing is not going to change -- your wallet is going to scream loud! Also note, that installing and configuring these devices is not covered by my article series. I'm writing only about using DVB-T stick.

We're done with the hardware part.

At this point you have decided what you want to buy (DVB-T stick only or package with an adapter, an external antenna, a cable and a mast or any combination of those) and from where, so go on and click "Purchase". Then come back to this article after your receive your stuff.

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