Philip Lawrence

My Experience With PiAware

My Experience With PiAware

I'd consider myself an aviation nerd. I've been seriously considering getting my Private Pilot's License (PPL) for a while now, but haven't taken the plunge just yet. I live about a mile away from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport (KIWA / AZA) which is a General Aviation (GA) airport that services some of the budget airlines including Allegiant, WestJet, Swoop, and Flair, but mostly services GA and military aircraft. Side note, if you're ever in the area and love planes, go check out Barrio Brewing at the airport (it's outside of the terminal, so you don't need a boarding pass or anything!). They have windows & a patio overlooking part of the GA ramp and there are often T-38s, Harriers, or various helis that are parked just outside the restaurant.

What is PiAware?

A while back my friend showed me to his PiAware, which is a small computer (a Raspberry Pi to be specific) that is hooked up to an antenna and acts as a self-contained aircraft radar. This can then feed into FlightAware or other live radars, usually in exchange for a premium/ad-free account on their site. Additionally, you can go directly to the PiAware in your browser and see a live version of the radar. Very cool for identifying traffic nearby or  tracking friends/loved ones flying in to visit!

My original PiAware Setup

I started with the PiAware sitting in my office, just a few feet from me. It wasn't an ideal place to put it, since there are a lot of obstacles between the antenna and the aircraft. But even with it there, I was able to pick up quite a bit of traffic. I also installed Virtual Radar Server (VRS) on a virtual machine on my home server. VRS has a much better interface than the default PiAware one, and you can install packages on top of it to further enhance the interface. Overall, a much better system and you don't have to choose between the two of them since both can run at the same time!

My initial coverage, shown by the darker jagged outline on the map. Each ring is 20 miles from my house.

Improving Coverage

As you can see above, I had pretty good coverage in my local area. But I didn't get a whole lot of traffic outside of the Phoenix metro area. I decided I wanted to change this, but how? Well, the easiest and cheapest step was moving the antenna somewhere more favorable. I haven't gotten my wife approval factor (WAF) score high enough, so I couldn't mount it outside or anywhere visible outside of my office. The next logical place was the attic.

The same setup the next day, but in the attic instead of my office.

What a HUGE difference moving the antenna up an additional ~15' made! The best part was that I was finally capturing most of the same traffic as shown on FlightAware.

Capturing ground movements at KIWA.

Additionally, I've been capturing ground movements from Gateway Airport, following them from their gate/ramp all the way to the edge state. I've even picked up ground movement at Phoenix SkyHarbor when the conditions are right - roughly 25 miles away with a lot of obstructions in between! In the screenshot above, you can also see a lot of the customizations I've made to VRS: quick links to the plane on various sites, the carrier flags, and the aircraft silhouettes.

Comparing FlightAware's live radar (left) vs. my PiAware (right)

Even More Coverage??

I've since added a larger antenna, which surprisingly didn't increase the range I was seeing, but has been providing more accurate data. The aircraft that are on the edges of my range have been showing the correct squawk, heading, altitude, etc. instead of having bad/missing data. I also just picked up a the blue USB stick instead of the orange one with hopes that it'll improve range slightly.

My current range; each ring is now 50 miles instead of 20 miles like the previous images.

Overall, I've thoroughly enjoyed working with PiAware and Virtual Radar Server. If you're into aviation at all, you can setup all of this for around $100 - and you get a free enterprise account from FlightAware, which is at the time of writing a $90/mo option! You can check out my stats and compare them to yours on FlightAware.



Director, Analytics Innovations at Acronym, Developer, Cyclist, Photographer

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