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Crowdsourcing in the skys

Flight tracking achieved thorugh crowdsourcing and quite a bit of software … Image credit: FlightAware

I bet it happened to you. most likely several times, to check a flight on FlightAware.I travel quite a bit and the FlightAware app on my smartphone is always just a click away. Over the year I came to trust FlightAware more than the info provided by the airlines themselves, because the former is much more accurate and available in real time. Actually, sometimes I notices the airlines’ people at the gate checking on  FlightAware to know where an incoming flight was and when it will be arriving at the gate!

Amazingly, the accuracy of the information arises from crowdsourcing!

FlightAware started some fifteen years ago (with a pilot, Daniel Baker, that was also a software person) to use ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast to understand how it works click here). At that time (remember, it was just 2005) an ADS-B receiver cost 5,000$, today you can get one for 25$ and its size has shrunk from an equivalent of four shoeboxes to 1/8 of a smartphone.

FlightAware started to give away receivers for free and topped that with a free subscription to FlightAware Enterprise services (an 89$ value per year). So far they have enrolled over 25,000 people all over the world creating and amazing coverage of the planet (since it is difficult to find people living in the middle of the oceans these areas are not covered in this way, they used to be void and FlightAware did a virtual tracking using software and assuming that the aircraft would keep its course. Now they are using satellite info so they have got full coverage with a resolution of 20 feet, i.e 7m – amazing!).

What is impressive is the capability of building a planet wide sensing network using “volunteers”, crowdsourcing. It works so well that the gathered data can be used to deliver accurate info and reliable services, even to airlines, companies that one would expect should be the one having the most accurate info on their aircraft position and status!

FlightAware is making money selling subscription to single people and companies and providing a variety of services created by a team of some 110 people. AI is heavily used to get meaning out of data and comparing the incoming data to historical data resulting is very accurate prediction of landing time, delays and even help airlines to reduce delays and cancellation.

I wonder when another company will come up to track cars in a city and deliver similar services… Technologically speaking, it is a no brainer, you already have sensing equipment around (people cellphones). It is a matter of developing a business proposition and capturing people interest to volunteer positioning data. What FlightAware experience tells it that crowdsourcing can work pretty well!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.