Airspace Explorer is a flight tracking and airspace education app. It has been developed by NATS (the UK’s leading provider of Air Traffic Control services) in partnership with AirNav Systems (the global flight data provider) and supported by AirTeamImages – the aviation image library. It’s currently in beta format as we are refining and improving it on a regular basis.
Airspace Explorer is actually a stripped down version of a more comprehensive app used internally at NATS for situational awareness and operational information. The internal facing app is called ‘Operational Insight’ and includes information and functionality that has been removed in Airspace Explorer (such as that concerning airspace regulations and the majority of military and police flights). We also have a web based flight tracking system which is tailored specifically for use by Airlines called ‘MOS’ (Mission Optimised Services). If you work for an airline and would like to know more about MOS, please get in touch.
We decided to release Airspace Explorer, as thought it might be of interest to the general public and help explain how UK Airspace is structured and managed.
Our app is similar to other flight tracking apps available on the App Store, but it has some additional interesting features
Firstly, in addition to providing information on flights and airports, our app provides information on the airspace itself. We show the Flight Information Regions (FIRs) that comprise the airspace around the world and the controlled airspace structures that make up the FIRs in UK airspace. Play with the app and learn about the difference between controlled and uncontrolled airspace and the different types of airspace structures that exist. You can also see the Sectors that we use in the UK to divide up the airspace and allocate Air Traffic Controllers to manage.
Secondly, unlike other flight tracking apps, our app includes some UK radar data for showing aircraft positions. We don’t display all of our radar data, as a number of aircraft, such as most military and police aircraft, are removed. Even with aircraft removed, the inclusion of radar helps to increase aircraft coverage and the radar often picks up and displays smaller aircraft that other apps don’t track.
Thirdly, we provide a 3D view of the airspace. The 3D views help to provide a sense of the relative altitudes of aircraft and the shapes and sizes of the controlled airspace areas in the UK. You can pan, zoom and move around the airspace in 3D and view flight paths in and out of airports to gain a sense of the approach and departure routes the aircraft fly.
Airspace Explorer has been designed for a ‘touch’ interface and we have tried to make it intuitive to use. Pinch using two fingers to zoom in and out of the map. Pan around the map using a single finger drag. Tap on icons to surface information panels and swipe left and right through them for more details.
The videos below demonstrate some of the features being used:
We have compiled a list of FAQs below to further understanding about Airspace Explorer. If you have any further questions, not answered below, please don’t hesitate to ask us via our social media channels – such as Facebook and Twitter – or contact us directly through our feedback form below.
Aircraft photos are sourced from AirTeamImages.com, Flickr and Wikimedia Commons. We only show photos we have permission to show. The app tries to match photos of aircraft based on their registrations. However, if we do not have a photo matching a registration, we will try to match on aircraft model type to give the user an example of what that aircraft looks like. If you have a photo of a registered aircraft that we are missing, and you have permissions to share it, we would love to put it in the app – just get in touch!
At the moment, for Airspace Explorer, we don’t. However we do understand that they are useful features and are hoping to introduce them in a later version. You can however find specific flights using the search facility.
For Airspace Explorer – our external facing App – we currently don’t. In most cases, emergency code squawks are made by aircrew simply to help inform Air Traffic Control that there is an abnormal situation that is being dealt with and not because there is imminent danger. We are aware that other Flight Tracking Apps do share squawk codes, and may revisit our decision at a later date, but for now we have chosen not to transmit them.
We try to show as much information as we can, but you may occasionally see that some details are missing. There are three primary reasons information may not show:
- The information doesn’t exist (e.g. flight information for smaller aircraft or those flying outside of controlled airspace that do not file flight plans).
- The information is purposefully withheld (e.g. for privacy or operational reasons)
- The app has failed to connect information together (it is still in beta and being refined – we do still suffer occasional glitches!)
Safety is our number one priority for all those flying in UK airspace and we will not compromise or risk it. We take security extremely seriously.
Having reviewed potential security issues with key stakeholders, including the CAA and relevant government departments, we feel that the risks associated with releasing the app do not cause significant concern or outweigh the educational value of doing so.
The rationale behind this is as follows:
1.) General availability of flight information. Flight tracking software has been available to the General Public for a number of years. In fact AirNav – the makers of the leading flight tracking app on the market – first launched over ten years ago in 2006. There are now hundreds of publicly available flight tracking apps and services available, as well as comprehensive flight information shared openly by airports and airlines. The vast majority of information provided in Airspace Explorer is already available in the public domain.Whilst radar data for aircraft positions over the UK is not widely available, the position reporting is similar to ADS-B and other position reporting technologies (e.g. MLAT) already in widespread use. Therefore we do not believe radar data provision poses a new or substantive risk or opportunity. This rationale is in line with the United States, Canada and New Zealand who already make their radar data publicly available (and is used in a number of Flight Tracking apps). Until April 2016, the FAA put a five minute delay on aircraft position reports, as a security measure, but have now removed it.The purpose of Airspace Explorer is not to revolutionise flight tracking with previously unseen or unique data, but to combine information and data, primarily drawn from publicly available sources, to show how airspace is managed in the UK. In summary, we do not feel our app provides any significant new or additional information that could be used to cause harm or disruption.
2.) CPNI agreements. The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) is the government authority which protects national security by providing protective security advice. We have worked closely with them on a policy that defines the aircraft types we should and should not show in Airspace Explorer. For this reason, the majority of UK military and emergency services aircraft are not shown.
If at any time we felt that the app did cause a viable security risk, it would immediately be removed from the App store and flight data transmission stopped.
No, not currently. However, if the app proves popular, we would consider it and welcome ideas for additional features from our user community.
There are no current plans. We acknowledge there are more Android tablet and mobile users than Apple ones, and this is a current shortfall with the App.
The app has been designed for iPads running the latest version of iOS. This is because Airspace Explorer is derived from ‘Operational Insight’, an internal-facing app that was built only for Apple iPads. As the original intention was to create an app just for NATS Employees, it made sense to standardise and support it on one platform.
There is a natural system processing delay of between 5-30 seconds from an aircraft position report being received to it being displayed in the app. Position reports vary as well in terms of length between them depending on the location of the aircraft and the data source reporting it. Positions are typically reported at intervals between 30 seconds and eight minutes. In summary, any delay will be the cumulation of the interval between aircraft position reports being made plus the system processing time inherent in receiving the report and then displaying it on the app.
In Airspace Explorer, altitude of aircraft over the UK is calculated as above mean sea level (AMSL) using the ‘standard’ pressure setting of 1013.2 hPa (hectopascal), equivalent to 1013.2 mbar (millibar) or 29.92 inHg (inches of mercury). This pressure setting is universally adopted as the standard for high-level flight i.e. that above Transition Altitude (TA).
Standard pressure setting altitudes are used in the app primarily for simplicity. However, the sophisticated Air Traffic Management systems our NATS controllers use calculate altitude of flights below TA by using regional pressure settings NOT the standard pressure setting. Regional pressure at sea-level is often referred to as ‘QNH’. The letters QNH historically come from transmitting regional pressure information via Morse code, but these days are commonly associated with the mnemonic ‘Query Nautical Height’. QNH pressure settings vary over time and region and are continuously updated in our Air Traffic Management systems.
An alternative to using standard pressure and QNH, is to use ‘QFE’. QFE uses a fixed position on the ground to calculate the height of an aircraft above it. Often the ground location used within a region of airspace is an airfield. Unlike standard pressure and QNH, QFE does not use mean sea level as its baseline. Again its origin comes from Morse code, but these days the mnemonic ‘Query Field Elevation’ is often associated with it.
It should be recognised that flight tracking apps and websites often use different measures for calculating and displaying flight height and altitudes. This can explain why measures shown across them differ. It should also be noted, that whilst most general users want to know the height of an aircraft above a certain point on the ground (e.g. a QFE derived measure) most apps and websites use the standard pressure setting or QNH to display altitude.
We recognise that the current ability of NATS Airspace Explorer to show altitude is limited to standard pressure setting, so we are currently looking at ways to include QNH. However, we are not currently investigating QFE – as this isn’t a measure we typically use in Air Traffic Control.
If you are specifically interested in the height or altitude of an aircraft above a specific area, we recommend you use a flight tracking system that incorporates QFE or QNH dependent on the downloaded pressure setting from the aircraft’s ADS-B system. Many airports have flight tracking systems available via their websites that incorporate QNH and show flight tracks around their geographic vicinity. In the first instance we recommend you explore those.
More information about flight altitude can be found here:
Not necessarily. Currently we use radar data to manage air traffic in the UK, however, we are currently exploring the use of ADS-B for supporting air traffic management – in particular satellite enabled ADS-B over the Atlantic Ocean. There is however a difference between ADS-B data certified for operational use and that used by many flight tracking apps, which is often crowd sourced and unverified.
Current aircraft positions displayed in the app (i.e. the position of the aircraft icon) are indicative of where that aircraft is – but are not always wholly accurate.
UK radar reporting intervals are generally short for aircraft over mainland UK – usually around ten seconds. Consequently aircraft positions over the UK are amongst the most accurate.
Positions based on other data sources are typically updated and plotted at intervals between thirty seconds and eight minutes (depending on the location, data source and frequency of last identified position of the aircraft).
The app makes a prediction on direction of aircraft movement between receiving position reports, and estimates positions based on this combined with the last reported speed. However, accuracy on these estimated positions varies and aircraft are repositioned correctly on receiving a new position update. Consequently, users may see the aircraft ‘jump’ a little into a new position. This is typical of flight tracking apps.
Flight data comes from both NATS and an aviation data provider called AirNav. AirNav supply data harvested from a variety of sources including ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) and predicted Oceanic positions as well as radar feeds from the US, Canada and New Zealand. Aircraft photos come from AirTeamImages and Flickr where appropriate licensing permits.
Potentially yes. In fact we already offer airlines a similar, but much more sophisticated, fleet tracking and analysis web portal. If you would like more information about this, contact us.
That is the intention but cannot be promised. The app is not intended as a commercial product but an educational one. However, we will need to fully understand the demand and infrastructure costs of providing the app before we can fully commit to providing it for free on an ongoing basis. Whilst currently not in scope, we may also look to introduce future ‘in app purchases’ with additional features that users can opt to pay for.
The app is in beta for several reasons. First and foremost, we are still actively developing and improving it. It is not ‘glitch’ free and there are a number of features that are far from perfect – such as displaying aircraft and navigating around the airspace in 3D mode. Furthermore, we have not released an app previously on such a large scale so are still fine-tuning our infrastructure. With these things in mind, the app may have to be taken offline from time to time as improvements are made. For these reasons, we thought it best to be clear with users that they are currently playing with a beta which is still under active development.
No. You’ll be glad to know that our controllers use much more sophisticated technology! Airspace Explorer (or more specifically, our internal version of it called ‘Operational Insight’) is not used at all by our controllers or supporting specialists to actively manage air traffic. We use it as a situation awareness tool – outside of the Operations Rooms – to show us the current state of the airspace. Furthermore – and this is really important – Airspace Explorer should not be used by pilots or any other aviation body as an operational flight or navigation tool. Its primary purpose is to raise awareness and understanding of how UK airspace is structured and managed – as an educational tool.
No. Over the UK we show most aircraft using our radar data – on average 80% or more that fly in a day. We try to show all commercial airliners and as many small aircraft as we can. However, in agreement with the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) we remove a number of aircraft from display in the app. These typically include most emergency services and military aircraft. We also don’t show any aircraft that we have been asked to remove – be they privately or commercially owned.
In airspace outside of the UK (including over the North Atlantic Ocean) we use flight data provided by our partner AirNav. They draw on a variety of data sources including ADS-B, MLAT and radar provided by other Aviation Authorities (such as the FAA). FlightAware has very good flight data coverage, but it is not yet globally comprehensive. The AirNav coverage map shows the areas they cover.
On the whole it does the same things, but there are some specific and exciting features that make our app very different from the others.
UK Radar. Firstly, we use our radar data to show aircraft positions and tracks over the UK. Other apps use an aircraft position reporting technology called ADS-B which is an excellent technology that we are actively testing at the moment for potential use in air traffic management. However, the ADS-B data used in Flight Tracking apps isn’t always entirely accurate, nor does it offer total coverage. We thought it would be of interest to see a UK picture of aircraft positions created from the same data sources that feed the screens and technology our controllers use to keep aircraft safe.
We still use ADS-B in the app to chart aircraft flying over the UK – but it prioritises radar positions which form the vast majority of position reports. Outside of the UK, we use ADS-B and other aircraft position data sources from our partner AirNav – the global flight data company – to plot aircraft positions.
3D view. In addition to a top down 2D view – Airspace Explorer has a 3D mode. We introduced this mode primarily to help show and explain different types of airspace structures that exist and the relative altitudes of aircraft that fly within them. The 3D view is deliberately exaggerated to help illustrate features – but we hope it is fun to play with and helps build an understanding of how the airspace is structured.
Airspace information. Airspace Explorer isn’t just a flight tracking app. It also provides information about the airspace. Globally we show the Flight Information Regions (FIRs) that define airspace boundaries. In the UK we also show key airspace structures such as Airways and the Sectors that define how Controllers are allocated to manage aircraft. It gives users an insight to the invisible infrastructure in the sky that helps aircraft move safely to and from their destinations.
We use a version of Airspace Explorer internally at NATS called ‘Operational Insight’. It provides much more detailed and operationally focused information than Airspace Explorer and we use it as an additional situation awareness tool. We realised that flight tracking apps are popular, so decided to create a ‘lite’ version of Operational Insight that we could share publicly. As well as tracking aircraft, we thought it might be of interest to people to learn how airspace is structured and managed – especially in the UK.
Airspace Explorer is freely available for anybody via the Apple App Store. It’s been designed with the iPad in mind. Our main reason for releasing it is to help people better understand how airspace is structured and managed in the UK and give you a greater appreciation of the role air traffic controllers play in keeping the skies safe.
Airspace Explorer is a new flight tracking and airspace education app from NATS that offers users a unique perspective on the skies above Britain. It’s the only app available that uses real UK radar data and offers a unique three dimensional view of the airspace.