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petehowell 02-12-2008 11:00 PM

Airplane Tracker
I have always wanted a gizmo that would allow people to track me realtime while flying. The Spot gizmo that dr has is really cool, but those of you who know me, know that I am homebrew kinda guy. That, and I hate subscription fees. (I am a wee bit on the frugal side - Thanks Mom!)

So I looked into something called APRS Automatic Position(or Packet) Reporting System. In its basic form, it uses a small transmitter to send your location (from GPS) to the internet using radio repeaters and eventually an internet connection. The information shows up on a Google maps interface on the web in near real time. And the best part - it is free! Using this system requires a Ham radio license, but I found that easy to obtain by passing a 35 question multiple guess test and paying $14.

Here is how I equipped N789PH for APRS.

1) I ordered an APRS Gizmo as a kit and built it. You can buy them assembled as well. It was fun and easy to build. I added a puck GPS and antenna. Total cost. ~$185 delivered

Here is the gizmo - it is a tiny transmitter and the device that encodes the GPS info into packets.

Here it is after I packaged it:

One more as I was programming it:

Here is my install. The thing weighs about 6 oz and is darn close to the CG. All it needs it a few milliamps of 14V when transmitting. I pirated power from the LED Nav lights.

The antenna is a homebrew design I found on the web made out of old twinlead 300ohm TV antenna wire.

If you don't want to build an antenna - help a kid get to Alaska

The install with Gorilla tape is temporary. I will glass it in now that I know it works. I was able to send signal to stations over 100 miles away with the tiny transmitter!!

Here is what shows up in realtime on the web:

here it is in a pic:

So there it is. If you like to tinker and want to save few bucks, give this a try. If you just want tracking for safety and want a turnkey and more robust solution - buy the Spot. It is good to have people know where you are.

I had fun making and tweaking this thing. I also learned about Ham radio and met some guys in the local amateur radio club. They are a lot like exp airplane guys, friendly, and looking for a better, cheaper way to do things.

Phil 02-12-2008 11:26 PM

Good stuff, Pete. I'm an old school extra class (N5QCN).

I'll have to order one of those and give it a shot. I really like the idea.


az_gila 02-13-2008 12:44 AM

Does it report X-Y-Z location, or just X-Y?

gil A

I guess my KE6HAP license would cover it....

sonex293 02-13-2008 04:46 AM

It reports altitude as well. I've got the 8Watt version installed because the repeaters are a little sparse in my neck of the woods. The low power version "works well on 9-15 volts DC" whereas the 8 Watt version "runs well on 12-13.6 volts DC" and runs at reduced power below 12Volts. I installed a regulator ( ) that works very well. Anything over 12V get regulated down and anything under passes through. I also bought a "stealth Antenna" ( ) and mounted it on the bottom of the airplane. The designer of the MicroTrak is very active Yahoo!Groups and is constantly expanding his products. I've been happy.

Michael Crowder

Geico266 02-13-2008 07:16 AM

What is the coverage? How much territory will it cover?

Great idea! Nice build!

LettersFromFlyoverCountry 02-13-2008 07:29 AM

In my next life, I'm coming back as someone as smart at Pete!

petehowell 02-13-2008 07:40 AM

Range and coverage will vary
Hi Larry,

In the flat hinterlands, coverage should be pretty good, especially if you are flying high. As you get into the mountains, it will be less. As Michael indicated, they make a hi-power version that should be better in the big rocks area.

It looks like repeater coverage in the western Dakotas and Eastern Montana is a bit sparse. I'll find out this summer when I fly to Big Sky. There is an add on RF amp for $50 if I find I need more power.

mike109g6 02-13-2008 09:56 AM

Where did you get that gizmo? Way Kewl!!! all I was about to find was AG stuff. Post a link.
Mike H 9A/8A

petehowell 02-13-2008 10:11 AM
They can set you up.

Noah 02-13-2008 10:43 AM

I'm with you, Pete, subscription services tend to get my homebuilder juices flowing too.:D I've been using APRS for several years, mostly for balloon tracking, but also in the airplane. When I flew down to Key West last year in my 182, my friends and family were able to monitor me (especially when ATC routed me down low over the Everglades due to a Miami Presidential TFR)! It was nice to have our friends waiting for us at the airport because they had been tracking our flight and knew as well as we did when we'd arrive! Another nice feature of APRS is the ability to send simple text messages.

There are a couple of APRS user forums, one specifically dedicated to airplanes - it's called aero-aprs and it's on Yahoo. ( Not too active, but your post identifying your installation would be appreciated there, Pete! There's a guy named Joe Dubner on there who wrote a web page app for tracking airplanes, so its got some special features dedicated to that kind of tracking. He's a great guy, built a Long-EZ and just started an RV-8.

The other yahoo group is dedicated to the family of hardware that Pete and I are using, made by Byonics (link above by Pete). The Yahoo Group is at

I purchased an identical Byonics Microtrak 300 to put in my RV-7A, but haven't gotten around to installing it just yet. Sounds like your antenna is working out well, I might just have to copy it, so thanks for the link!!

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