Using APRS for safer flying


APRS track

APRS track

Pilots need to plan ahead. Plan for lots of situations. Plan. Plan. Plan.

Even with all the planning, sometimes, things happen. It could be the radio fails, or the weather is getting worse than predicted, or winds, or “the call of nature”. In most cases, the pilot is able to take care of the situation directly. However, there are times when an extra set of eyes would be helpful.

But what if those eyes are not in the plane?

Using ATC Flight Following is one way to get another set of eyes. It’s a great service and it’s still free (well, perhaps we should call it ‘pre-paid’ since it is tax dollars at work).

Another option is APRS – automated position reporting system. APRS is a combination of GPS data and amateur radio transmissions. In it’s most basic, a transmission includes the radio call sign and the GPS coordinates and typically will include altitude. It can include other data as well such as sensor data (temperature is a good example) a text string of information, or a user selected indication of the type of vehicle or usage.

Amateur Radio has come a long way. Traditionally, it was very much a roll up your sleeves and deep electronics knowledge “sport”. However, it has lots to offer, even to those who don’t own a soldering iron. APRS is a good example. The radio license needed for APRS is just the Technician Class and it is a pretty easy written test. The average person can study and pass the exam in just a few days of study. There is no longer a requirement to learn Morse code. The electronics are pretty easy too. There are affordable pre-built “all in one” APRS units available that are no bigger than the size of a two packs of cards.

In a recent flight, the clouds started to get thick so it was time to decent. The initial decent was from 9,500ft to 7,500ft but the clouds were too thick to continue so a quick circling decent brought the plane down to a safe altitude to maintain visual flight to a near by airport.

With APRS, friends and family could easily see the plans had changed. There were no worries and no surprises.


  1. Scott says:


    I’ve got the APRS app on my iPhone, known as iBCNU. I am KD4FDO. I’d like to track you when you are flying. What is your call sign or your identifier? I’m not very knowledgeable about packet or APRS, but the app seems to work nicely for following folks. It also allows me to be tracked as well. Let me know what you think when you get a chance.


  2. Bruce says:

    Glen —
    I love APRS — there are great tracking programs for those of us limited to staying on the ground!
    This was last Saturday’s trip to pick up son & BWI and then head to his girlfriend’s graduation at Messiah College near Harrisburg PA.

    My navigation aid feeds a signal to my HT radio that broadcast my postion. There are newer radios out that have the APRS receiver built in just for this purpose.

    I had written up a project proposal for a demo project for work and created a Message Broker Flow to process the live feeds from one of the level 1 APRS servers – I was seeing about 10 updates / second.


    • Glen says:

      Didn’t know you were an amateur licences operator. Cool!

      You demo project sounds great. It would be cool to link recorded video with APRS data and then have it as an archive source. it would not be “live video” (unless we can find a HAM who tinkers with Video).

      For APRS mapping, I’ve using two sites – and … the latter filters to just airplanes (using the identifier characters and altitude).

  3. Anne Johnson says:

    Glen – I’m a chum of your mother’s, came to the Farm with the Shady Banks folks last week, and saw your plane. Since then, my son, who pilots a Cessna 182, sent me the website for Van, and I saw a slew of pictures of the RV8 in various paint jobs – they look so great, can’t wait to see what you do with it, you have the soul of a designer and will come up with something terrific.

    By the way, you need to change your spelling – you’re using the word decent for losing altitude – I think you mean descent? aj