COAA PlanePlotter Review Part 1

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At the heart of the PlanePlotter system is Mlat. Here a USAF E-3C (SHUCK80H) is being successfully Mlated (manually by me - the blue lines are hyper curves used during the process). Note also the KC-135R (QID81) and MC-130J (LEGIT41)
At the heart of the PlanePlotter system is Mlat. Here a USAF E-3C (SHUCK80H) is being successfully Mlated (manually by me – the blue lines are hyper curves used during the process). Note also the KC-135R (QID81) and MC-130J (LEGIT41)

PlanePlotter Version Reviewed: 6.4.1.0-6.4.1.2 (GS/MU rN)

As an aviation enthusiast of many a decade I can tell you that this sort of hobby evolves over the years. Back in the 1980’s the only tools I had were a pair of binoculars, a copy of Ian Allan’s abc Military Aircraft Markings, a note book and pencil. As time went on I added a 35mm SLR (remember those?) and a collection of high powered lenses. The 90’s saw the addition of my first scanner plus a spotting scope for good measure. I was pretty much sorted – not much got past me at my local airfield.

I vaguely remember somewhere in between a company producing a “radar box”, but these were civvy orientated and my love was military, pure and simple. Pricey items too, so I stayed clear, but over the past couple of months I have deeply regretted not investigating it further. You see, PlanePlotter (PP for short) has opened my eyes to what could have been – much in the same way that I wish I could be magically transported back to the 1980’s when the skies above were full of F-111’s, A-10’s, and the occasional SR-71 inbound Mildenhall.

Those were the days! A 494 FS F-111F being pushed back into its HAS after one of its final training sorties in '92 (no real relevance barring shameless nostalgia!)
Those were the days! A 494 FS F-111F being pushed back into its HAS after one of its final training sorties in ’92 (no real relevance barring shameless nostalgia!)

That said, back then, this was probably enough. I wasn’t short on spotting opportunities what with four local USAF bases just an hour or so away and an active RAF airfield (Coltishall) on my doorstep. Imagine for a second though what the hobby would have been given the equipment available today.

But I digress, the RTL USB dongle has really kick started my hobby – initially just as a novelty item – a dirt cheap SDR. The most commonly heard phrase on forums regarding this device is “if it doesn’t work its only a tenner” (or words to that effect), but, it does work, and it has opened up areas of the radio spectrum that was the preserve of dedicated kit costing hundreds if not thousands 10 or more years ago.

Having played around with ADSBScope a freeware aircraft tracking program, it was obvious to me that I needed something a bit more adaptable, more feature rich. I needed aircraft filtering, alerts, different charts, I needed to see military aircraft… lets face it, I needed PlanePlotter!

PlanePlotter is the first and only multilateration software available to enthusiasts which can locate Mode-S aircraft that are not transmitting ADS-B position reports – it is accurate too, in most instances, enough to pop outside and watch the Mlat aircaft fly overhead. And yes I know FR24 has something similar, but its Mlat system is not readily available and gets switched off on a whim. No, PlanePlotter is the real deal network system, but it is a shareware program (i.e. costs money). From my perspective if my “latest hobby” was short lived I didn’t want to splash out on another fancy desktop icon that saw little use. Ironically, its has been the best 25 Euros I’ve ever spent and my system has been running 24/7 ever since, battling on even when my laptop went tits up this week!

PlanePlotter is the brainchild of Bev M Ewan-Smith, a physics graduate, holder of a Cambridge doctorate and an amateur astronomer. With his wife they run the Centro de Observação Astronómica no Algarve (COAA) and a B&B, hence the official website for all the software Bev has published (including the Plotter series Plane and Ship and many more beside) resides at coaa.co.uk.

My overwhelming desire to actually plot military aircraft got the better of me. Because PlanePlotter has a free 21 day trial period I decided to take the plunge and try out some of the features. Its worth mentioning that during the trial (unregistered) period “sharing” is disabled, but users can get a feel for the software and connect a suitable receiver (in my case a bog standard RTL dongle coupled to RTL1090) to view local traffic.

In addition, the multilateration feature is not available until the software is registered and authenticated. Once PP has been registered users can apply for a Master User (MU) trial (21 days), pay an annual fee after that (currently 12 Euros) or become a Ground Station (GS) thus enabling MU status for free, just by sharing data to the existing network. That may sound a little complex at first. Simply put, register PP and then apply for a 21 day MU trial. If you provide suitable raw data you won’t have to pay a penny more. If on the other hand you don’t have a receiver and or can’t share data then the modest 12 Euro annual fee will permit you to plot non positional aircraft (Mode-S) if there are sufficient Ground Stations in your area.

For the record, I’m currently using Windows XP Professional installed on a modest Intel Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz, 2GB RAM, desktop PC (Dell). My previous installation was on a Windows XP Home Edition, Intel Pentium 1.6 GHz, 512MB RAM Acer laptop, but unfortunately a hardware failure has resulted in the desktop taking over while I figure out the best way forward (a new desktop most likely).

PlanePlotter can be installed on more than one machine (each system needs registering and authenticating online though), however only one instance should be used at any given time, as if a router is used, it won’t know which one to feed with data. If there is a desperate need to test another system concurrently ensure that positionless reporting, Mlat features and sharing is disabled so as not to introduce errors into the sharing network.

During installation you’ll be asked where to locate the main folders and by default (on XP anyway) these will be:

  • C:\COAA\PlanePlotter (for image/chart/log files)
  • C:\Program Files\COAA\PlanePlotter (main execution file)

Personally I see no problem with these locations though some users prefer to create a new folder called “Tools” for the image/chart/log files e.g.: C:\Tools\COAA\PlanePlotter Basically you can put these anywhere, but remember you’ll want to access these folders from time to time to delete logs, add charts and what not, so keep it simple and not bury them away 10 folders deep! Consideration should be given to desktop shortcuts too as I’m forever going back and forth amending conditional expression text files, GPX files, charts and company logos and this really does help.

Once PlanePlotter has installed the first thing needed is an accurate home location. This can be gleaned from any reliable source such as a GPS receiver or the internet (Google Maps for example). Make sure it is accurate though as GS/MU status is dependent upon this being spot on. A test option is available within the Options… Home location setup dialog. I found this format worked fine: e.g. N52 12.2345 E001 12.3456 Of course replace the degrees, minutes and seconds with your exact antenna location coordinates!

A handy degrees to decimal converter can be found at: directionsmag.com Bookmark this site as complimentary software such as sbsplotter1 require decimal input as opposed degrees, minutes and seconds.

In addition, precise time keeping is essential. The PC clock may look fairly accurate, but its hardly atomic and processor demands and other factors means the actual time can be off by quite a few milliseconds if you’re lucky or many seconds if you’re unlucky (guess what one I was?). Fortunately a simple solution is at hand. NTP (Network Time Protocol) provides the internal clock with super reliable and accurate updates via numerous internet servers and Meinberg NTP is the recommended software to use with PP. In fact it has to be used if you are proposing to run a Ground Station.

I had a few issues with NTP to start with. Basically the installation “seemed” to go okay and worked for a while, but then shut down unexpectedly and wouldn’t restart. In the end I uninstalled NTP, reinstalled and everything has been fine since (never got to the bottom of this, but it happened on both machines running XP, coincidence?). Anyway I chalked this one up to experience and just happy its working. I recommend shortcutting “Quick NTP Status” to the desktop for test purposes – regularly check the status to make sure it is operating within guidelines.

NTP Quick Status (click to enlarge, opens in same window)
NTP Quick Status (click to enlarge, opens in same window)

No doubt like me you’ll be itching to start decoding, but first read through the comprehensive help file, print off a copy of the keyboard shortcuts (accelerator keys) and definitely join the PP Yahoo Group and bookmark the PP Wiki – you’ll need them all for reference especially in the first few weeks of operation.

PlanePlotter has a lot of DIY features – the bits that make it more fun (or not as the case maybe?!) and requires patience to setup, but that is why it is so good – each and every user has a totally unique version. Sure a degree of computer literacy is required (especially when it comes to router port forwarding), but nothing too complex. In fact most things are straightforward if the right documentation is read and digested. The help button is only a click away and the links provided should assist in every aspect of setting up the program.

First things first – get a chart (map) up and ensure your home location is where it should be (this is marked with an orange crossed circle).

Home
Home
Aircraft List View, customised with country flags and company/operator logos (click to enlarge, opens in same window)
Aircraft List View, customised with country flags and company/operator logos (click to enlarge, opens in same window)

There are numerous display options available: Google maps, Open Street Maps (OSM), satellite images and outlines. You can even scan your own charts and calibrate them. The buttons below are the primary display tools. The aircraft symbol is for selecting Aircraft List view (keyboard short cut “A” or “a” for a pop-up version which can also be customised to display columns in various orders to suit). The small map like icon is for charts/maps and the black with green roundabout for outlines.

Display icons
Display icons

Conventional pre calibrated maps are provided by Google and OSM. By default the Map button downloads from Google although by using right shift/Map click an OSM version can be downloaded instead. Left shift/Map click will produce a Google satellite image. Adding “Ctrl” to the shift sequence initiates larger than screen images. The OSM maps are preferable due to the higher resolution on wide screens whereas the lower res maps are better suited to notebook size devices. The current observation area can be zoomed in/out with the “+”/”-” buttons, but remember to enhance the resolution you’ll need to re-map by pressing the Map button (or outline button if an outline map is used) to redraw a new in focus image. After a while you’ll download a lot of charts and these then load directly from the HDD.

Map icons
Map icons
Outline map view. As you can see I have different aircraft colours for various flight levels. My local traffic is cyan and shared traffic is green, also custom symbols are used (click to enlarge, opens in same window)
Outline map view. As you can see I have different aircraft colours for various flight levels. My local traffic is cyan and shared traffic is green, also custom symbols are used (click to enlarge, opens in same window)

For the authentic radar head look, the highly customisable “outlines” are a must, but the downloadable map options are also very useful. All charts/outlines can be saved in any of the 10 quick chart allocations for immediate access. Something I’ll explain later is the ability to overlay additional data via GPX files. Things like airfield names, NAT tracks, fellow sharers locations (not exact positions) and or anything else you can think of or want to be displayed.

Quick chart allocations (1-10, 5 used, 5 spare) and A B C D configuration buttons
Quick chart allocations (1-10, 5 used, 5 spare) and A B C D configuration buttons

While setting up it advised to stay clear of the A B C D buttons. These are provided for specialist configurations and not for just storing maps/charts. There is no need to save current settings as when PlanePlotter exits it saves the last configuration.

PlanePlotter’s menu and options are logically laid out and because it is so uncluttered visually you will be forgiven for thinking there isn’t much to it. However, PlanePlotter is an extremely powerful tool, be that the unbelievably useful filtering via conditional expressions to the amazing alert system. There is no room for gimmicks – in fact you won’t find any. It is obvious that with each release, feature sets have been carefully thought out providing the end user with the best aircraft tracking capability anywhere.

Chart options screen. Numerous settings can be adjusted here such as changing FL colours/ranges, contrails and alerts (click to enlarge, opens in same window)
Chart options screen. Numerous settings can be adjusted here such as changing FL colours/ranges, contrails and alerts (click to enlarge, opens in same window)

PlanePlotter doesn’t decode ADS-B data directly so requires suitable equipment such as a Kinetic SBS-1/2/3, AirNav RadarBox, Beast, AVR or RTL dongle. If you plan to use an RTL dongle for decoding purposes you’ll also need to download RTL1090 beta 2 (required for multilateration). Other SDR decoders can be used such as ADSB#, but not for providing raw data to the network. We touched upon RTL1090 in a previous review – its a straightforward set-up as long as all the correct .dll files are in the same folder as the RTL1090beta2.exe.

RTL1090 folder with correct files added. Incidentally there should also be a file named radar1090.txt - this provides radar location data. RTL1090 will work without it though
RTL1090 folder with correct files added. Incidentally there should also be a file named radar1090.txt – this provides radar location data. RTL1090 will work without it though
Spanner icons are for chart and i/o settings
Spanner icons are for chart and i/o settings

Before we start RTL1090, PlanePlotter needs to know what receiver is being used. Click the i/o (input/output) spanner symbol and up will pop the input/output settings screen.

The input section: select RTL dongle > RTL1090. UDP/IP data from net is set to Port 9742 used for peer-to-peer Mlat requests. Output data optional, I’m currently logging Mode-S, but it isn’t necessary, in fact the logs are huge and require regular maintenance (deleting!). I have the TCP/IP server enabled to Port 30003 (basestation port) for use with an addon program called sbsplotter1 (it generates max/min range polar plots that can be overlaid on an outline chart more on that in the addons feature).

The outputs can be left unenabled. These can be configured at a later date should you wish to use them for additional options such as remote slaving.

Input/output settings. Set-up is easy most things can be left unenabled
Input/output settings. Set-up is easy most things can be left unenabled

PlanePlotter provides the TCP/IP details under Options… Mode-S receiver… RTL dongle RTL1090… Setup TCP/IP client…

RTL dongle setup
RTL dongle setup

… up pops the info required which then needs to be copied to RTL1090.

TCP/IP IP address
TCP/IP IP address

Open up the RTL1090 configuration screen and ensure that the IP/URL is 127.0.0.1 and the Port is 31001. Enter your home location and any additional requirements such as start (/run) after launch or MLAT client if you are planning to become a an approved Ground Station.

RTL1090 configuration window
RTL1090 configuration window

Start RTL1090 and ensure data is being downloaded (List).

RTL1090 decoding ADS-B data stream
RTL1090 decoding ADS-B data stream

Start PlanePlotter Process (by clicking the green button). The screen will populate with aircraft symbols (the total amount dependant upon your antenna type and location).

Time to click the green button!
Time to click the green button!

Of course if you are using a dedicated ADS-B receiver RTL1090 is not needed.

The first thing you’ll notice is that all the aircraft display .NO-REG that is because ADS-B data doesn’t include registrations or aircraft type – PlanePlotter relies on ICAO hex codes in conjunction with a pre-populated reference .sqb database (containing all the reg/hex code tie-ups amongst other things) as well as internet sharing amongst other users. Remember that if sharing regos/types is enabled (Options…Sharing… Setup… Except shared regs and types) your displayed information will only be as good as the database that is sharing it (if its wrong its wrong!).

Sharing setup gives you full control over what you choose to upload and or download
Sharing setup gives you full control over what you choose to upload and or download

It is worth mentioning that errors sneaking into your own database are common if sharing rego’s/types is enabled. An obvious way around this is to not except shared rego’s and to tighten control over what PlanePlotter can or can’t do to the basestation.sqb file.

Select Options… SQB database options… and enable the parameters you are comfortable with so that your basestation.sqb is just that – individual and personal to your set-up and not full of errors, however well intentioned the original sharer may have been!

SQB database options
SQB database options

There are a couple of good databases to choose from:

The first comes courtesy of the highly regarded ManTMA enthusiast group. The database is maintained by Paul Little with regular monthly updates (time permitting!). This is good starter database and I used it for a while before moving onto Chris Globe’s version.

Chris Globe’s basestation.sqb has been heavily edited removing a lot of duplicate material. I understand from a recent update Chris has now reached 100% with the country flag data migration and he continues to trawl through the database amending where necessary. While the operator flags (logo’s) may not be complete (these 3-letter ICAO codes are used in conjunction with BMP image files representing company flags – more on that in the customisation review), I have found the database entries contains just about everything (and what isn’t there can be added manually) so I highly recommend downloading this particular database which is updated frequently (usually once a month).

In all honesty you can’t go wrong with either database so feel free to try both.

When experimenting with basestation databases it is advised to make a backup copy elsewhere should you prefer the original or make a mistake during editing (yes, you can edit the file using freeware software like SQLite Expert Personal).

The basestation.sqb file should be placed in the Logs folder (e.g. C:\COAA\PlanePlotter\Logs or wherever you created the folder) and then defined under Options… Directories… SQB Aircraft Database (choose the Logs location from the file tree and ignore the preset C:\Kinetic\etc location that appears as default). Basically this is just to tell PlanePlotter where to find it. The defining practice is used a lot during customisation for charts, flags etc.

When you place the Basestation file into the Logs folder (copy and paste as opposed drag and drop) you may well note another SQB file called flightroute.sqb this file is unique to PlanePlotter and stores information about flight numbers and routes, it does not exist when PP is first run and is automatically created (it can also be deleted and will restore itself next time PP is started). The database is checked when flight numbers are received and the route info (e.g. LHR-OTP) is displayed on the chart/list. Routes are generated and shared amongst users via a wide variety of online sources and not by PlanePlotter itself as ADS-B does not include that information in the downlink.

If you are happy with how things are running I propose that PlanePlotter should now be registered to enable sharing (and Mlat if required). The process takes a few minutes and requires an email confirmation (after purchase). Enter the serial number and that is it – barring applying for a 21 day free Mlat trial which requires the original email address used to register PP.

Time to enable internet sharing!

There are 3 sharing methods plus no sharing. The graphics below indicate the order in which these are present. From left to right: no sharing up or down, sharing upload and download, sharing upload only and sharing download only. Simply click in turn, the button changes accordingly.

Sharing icons
Sharing icons

In Part 2 I’ll take you on a tour of the interface, the various display options plus operating PlanePlotter as a GS/MU. In Part 3 Customising and addon’s. Part 4… anything I haven’t covered in Parts 1-3! This may change so bear with me.

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