Lost Aircraft Tracking System with “Breadcrumbs” – for Free

Lost Airplane

Lost Airplane

Great article on tracking crashed aircraft in Air and Space magazine November 2011 issue “Lost in America.

The article describes several types of Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) technology used to help alert family and officials that a plane has crashed, and to help rescuers find the downed plane.

It explains the old official system (operating at 121.5 mhz), a newer official system (406 mhz) and a fascinating new system with a very different improved and proven concept.

The two official systems use active tracking and rely on a signal being sent from the plane after it crashes. The disadvantages of this is that when a plane crashes in mountains – the signal may not get out, or the emergency alert device might get damaged and not able to broadcast.

The newest type of system sends out its GPS location every 2 minutes while in flight (to the Iridium Satellite system). Lets called this idea “Breadcrumbs.” Its is exemplified by a product called Spidertracks ~ $1,800).

This means that when the GPS signal stops – phone calls and emails are sent within seconds to people you have designated – alerting them that your GPS has stopped.

Your Trail and Last Position is Saved Back “Home”

Most importantly, searchers can track your flight path with the “breadcrumbs” left by the GPS data so they have a very good idea where to start looking.

To those familiar with FAA’s studied incompetence (most dramatically exposed by Mary Sterling/Schiavo), it is no surprise that FAA isn’t interested in this new and smarter technology.

The new breadcrumbs technology costs about $1,800, and my hat is off to the company for creating this.

However, there may be a way to do “Breadcrumbs” much cheaper – almost free – if only FAA would lift a finger (no – not that finger :-).

It would involve making an simple program (an “App”) on your cell-phone that sends your GPS coordinates every minute by email or “text” to a program on reliable website – that knows you are in-flight.

Then when your cell-phone fails to send your GPS coordinates every minute by email – the computer fires off an an email and recorded messages to people you have designated to get alerts.

Since I don’t trust FAA with my safety unless I’m forced to – I would prefer the central computer be maintained by a non-profit group like AOPA, ALPA, or maybe the 99s. OK maybe FAA could help fund it – but only if it was with no-strings attached.

Non-Central Web Server

I could also (when I have time) write a program to run on your own website that receives your tracking emails, and when the emails stop it notifies your loved ones of your last known location and the path you took to get there.

Imagine a commercial air craft with 200+ passengers’ phones all transmitting their GPS coordinates back home every minute. When that aircraft disappears (such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370), it would only take minutes to reconstruct its flight path to its last position in the air. This is particularly useful since not all commercial aircraft use GPS (Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did not have a GPS tracking system, unlike nearly every smartphone.)

Tracking and Protecting Journalists and Activists in Hostile Countries

Journalists and Activists in hostile areas are often “Detained” by governments, and sometimes by the opposition. “Detainees” are typically taken to secret jails or places of torture.

This system could easily be used to track and find people who expect to get into such a risky position.


With this simple system in place anyone with a newer cell-phone could get rescued quickly – while they are still alive.


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