ESP8266 based Plane Spotter – How To

Do you like this post? A regular project like the PlaneSpotter Color takes many hours of my free time to develop and maintain. Would you offer me a beer for my hard work if I was your neighbour? Modern technology called teleportation makes it easy to send me a beer. Just click here. Thank you!

When I sit at my living room table I can see wonderful big airplanes in the final approach to Zurich (ZRH) airport or ascending to a far destination: Airbus A380 or Boeing B777 are ingenious proof of what we are capable to design and build. Quite often when I have visitors I start flightradar24 to get more information about the airplanes we see. But wouldn’t it be nice if this information would just be there, anytime I’m curious – without starting an app on my smart phone? Since I’m playing a lot with the ESP8266 it was an obvious choice to build such a device by myself. I actually had already built one a while back with the Flight-O-Matic but the setup was quite complicated and the project was dormant for a while. Until I recently discovered a service that provides exactly the information I needed and is free to use as well.

#ESP8266 Plane Spotter

What you’ll need

In order to get this project running you’ll need the following list of hardware:

Continuous Delivery on ESP8266NodeMCU ESP8266 module or Wemos D1 Mini
display0.96" SSD1306 OLED display
JumperFFA few connectors and USB Wire
WeatherStationKit-2Or order a complete starter kit for USD $19.90 (incl. shipping) from my shop and support this blog.

Do you live in the US? Then you can also order the Kit from Amazon

Depending on the coverage of feeders in your area you might also buy the following items:

  • Raspberry Pi (Model 3 recommended but also works with older versions and probably Zero)
  • RTL-SDR dongle for receiving the ADS-B signal
  • Micro SD card for Raspberry Pi (for Model 3 or with adapter, depending on your RasPi model)


The Service – ADSBExchange

At the core of this project is the excellent service provided by Dan Streufert and countless people feeding live transponder signals into it: From what I understand it is built on top of the project and lets you query live position data based on location, distance to a point, altitude etc and returns a JSON object which you can process in your code. Please note: in order to keep this service free-to-use Dan depends on your support, either by donating money to cover the server hosting costs or by providing your local data to improve coverage.

Note, this step is optional: When I first checked the coverage of the Zurich airport wasn’t so great so I decided to reactivate my RTL-SDR DVB-T dongle (see posts herehere and here) and contribute live data to If the coverage in your area is insufficient consider to setup such a feeder as well.

Once you have the hardware (see above, Raspberry Pi and RTL-SDR dongle) you can either do the setup manually or take a short cut by becoming a flightaware feeder and using their ready-to-feed sd-card image called PiAware: Once you have done that you have to setup your PiAware instance to also feed to by running a script provided by Dan:


The Plane Spotter Hardware

Once you are sure you have a good coverage of your area of interest you can start to get to the actual plane spotter hardware. I recommend to either use the components provided by my IoT Starter Kit ($USD 19.90 incl. free shipping from China) or to get the setup I described in this post using the Wemos D1 Mini which requires soldering but yields a very compact setup. The wiring is described here.


The Code

UPDATE: this section describes the Platformio IDE project setup. In the meantime I have made it available also as example project in the WeatherStation library. Read more about it here if you prefer the Arduino IDE.

In my recent ESP8266 projects I started switching to the PlatformIO IDE since it is a lot more convenient to use compared to the Arduino IDE: automatic library dependency management, better coding support in the editor and great Travis CI and even Continuous Delivery support. So please make sure that you have a running IDE before you get started with the code. Once you have that ready please checkout the code from my github repository.

Now the most important part is to configure the QUERY_STRING variable in the main.cpp file:

const String QUERY_STRING = “lat=47.424341887&lng=8.568778038&fDstL=0&fDstU=10&fAltL=0&fAltL=1500&fAltU=10000”;

For a detailed description please checkout the documentation of the virtual radar server. What my example does is to filter out all aircrafts which are not within 10km from a location south of the runway and above 1500 feet (I don’t care about landed airplanes) or above 10000 feet (I also don’t care about transit airplanes). There are many options to adapt this query to your needs, so please carefully read the afore mentioned documentation. Once you are ready with the query you can flash the firmware on your ESP8266 chip.

Geo fencing the rest call limits the results to airplanes visible to your location
Geo fencing the rest call limits the results to airplanes visible to your location


First Run & Adapting it

Since the ESP8266 is fetching the data from the internet you’ll have to connect the module to the internet. My code is using the excellent WifiManager library. If your ESP8266 cannot connect to a (known) access point it will start an AP by itself and allow you to connect through your Wifi settings to it. A captive portal window opens and lets you select the correct SSID and enter the password. It then stores the Wifi settings on flash and will use it in the future.

If everything works you can go on and change the way the data is displayed or extract more data from the adsbexchange json object. It would be great if you could share your results with me either here in the comments or on Twitter. I’ll be happy to share it with the community.

Verification: airplane starting from ZRH airport
Visual Data verification: Airplane starting from ZRH airport


You can build a cute little plane spotting tool with just a few components for under $20 without much work. If the coverage of your area on adsbexchange is poor then you could become a data feeder for about $50.- more (Raspberry Pi + RTL-SDR Dongle). Playing with the real-time data is fun and can be a very rewarding weekend project!


Posted by squix78


  1. Hello Dani,
    cool thing and a rather fascinating story! If I did not already have one kit I would order one…
    But one thing: On the label stuck on the bag is written “NodeMCU V3” but in the text description you write “NodeMCU V1”.
    Perhaps you can sync this?
    Best regards and successful business!

  2. Hi Daniel;

    Awesome! I got my kit and I loaded up the WeatherStation sketch and everything was working 🙂

    I then went on to add the DHT11 code and that’s when things stopped working. I suspect the firmware was over written or something bad … bricked I suspect.

    From the Arduino IDE …

    warning: espcomm_send_command: didn’t receive command response
    warning: espcomm_send_command(FLASH_DOWNLOAD_BEGIN) failed
    error: espcomm_upload_mem failed
    error: espcomm_upload_mem failed

    I then went on to try and reflash the NodeMCU firmware using ESP8266Flasher.exe … from there I get ..

    Note:Serial port connected.
    Note:Begin find ESP8266.
    Note:ESP8266 ACK success.
    Note:ESP8266 ACK success.
    Error:Set ESP8266 Address timeout.

    Similar problems directly from the esptool

    c:\Python27\Scripts> –port com5 write_flash -fm dio 0x00000 nodemcu_integer_0.9.5_20150318.bin v1.2.1

    A fatal error occurred: Timed out waiting for packet header

    … in fiddling around the board is alive .. it does send this out the serial port at 75K baud… could it be a baud rate issue? I assume not as I understand it’s autobaud detecting.

    ets Jan 8 2013,rst cause:2, boot mode:(3,7)

    Questions –

    o Do you have any suggestions on next steps?

    o Could it be power? I gather power is important for FTDI boards but the NodeMCU has the 3v3 regulator and it’s running off a PC with “good” USB current .. and it did work fine before it did not 😉

    o I’ve had no success in pressing the RST and FLASH buttons — I as I understand them, the RST/CTS lines put the board into to bootloader mode at any rate .. thoughts?

    … thoughts?

    1. Hi David

      Here sone thoughts
      – try another USB cable, the can be reason for your symptoms
      – try another USB port or restart your PC (or Mac?) I had situations where my Mac would only show the device after a restart
      – unplug the DHT11. Maybe your wiring is wrong and you accidentally switched VCC and Ground. Not sure about the longterm effects of such a switch. Such a switch was actually the only way I could ever brick an ESP8266

      If these tips don’t help feel free to get back to me

      Cheers, Dani

      1. Thanks Daniel —

        I’ve tried multiple USB cables and multiple USB ports (Windows).

        I did go back to just the bare board .. no display and no DHT11.

        I’m now trying to see it the ESP AT command set even works … and no luck there yet. I do get this when I press the reset button so it is alive a least a bit 😉

        ets Jan 8 2013,rst cause:2, boot mode:(3,7)

        but nothing in response to AT ….


        Cheers David

        1. According to this post it might have to do something with your reset pin:
          I’m not sure what that means;-).
          With which baud rate are you trying to flash the ESP? I your example from your last comment you did auto-sensing, right? Try to use a fixed lower rate like like 115200 or 57600. It often is something like the “-b” parameter.

          When you say you went back to the AT firmware: so did you manage to flash the AT firmware? After flashing the ESP8266 with the new firmware the AT binary has been replaced…

  3. Thanks Daniel — I just received another NodeMCU board as I’ve wasted enough time on the dead one 😉 If I manage to get the dead one working again, I’ll let you know.

    HNY, David

  4. Thanks Daniel, You sent me a trial kit and I purchased 2 others from Amazon. Some minor problems (outlined in Bryan Miller’s comments on Amazon). it works great but I still could use a fix to be able to get the screen to reverse from top to bottom your current variable didn’t work.

    I also located a free case plan that I had 3D printed and it fits and looks good. I found a local printer and picked it up today ($9) and it was a good fit, BUT the pins to hold the OLED were slightly out of register. I think I’ll have to cut them off and tape or glue the display in place. There is a ledge for it to fit in so i don’t think that will be a problem. I’m going to get another one printed for my local (Grand Rapids , MI USA) and I sent the plans off to my son in Atlanta, GA USA for him to use. I built the Squix kit with them over our Thanksgiving Holiday and now it will have a much better case than the plastic box it came in. Thanks for your good work and I did send off a tip. This case fits the slightly smaller SQUIX version of ESP8266 -12E. for the plans

  5. I have my kit, and am following the directions, but even after 4 cable swaps, verifying all setting from the getting started guide, and checking my IDE for errors, I cannot seem to get a valid up load.

    The error I encounter is espcomm_upload_mem failed;

    Now I verified that the chip on the board shows a CP2102, so that is the USB driver I installed;
    I restarted my computer (windows 10) to ensure driver is loaded;
    I see a com3 show up when I apply power with the USB cable, so that is the port i chose;
    I loaded the libraries as indicated, and select the board nodeMCU 1.0

    I also updated from the 1.6 to the 1.8 arduino IDE too;

    I am lost to what else I can do to get the base sketch uploaded?

    1. Hi. From distance it indeed sounds like you did everything fine. On one hand it is a good sign that the COM port shows up is a very good sign, it means that you have the correct driver installed. On the other hand there are reports of problems with the CP2102 on Windows 10. Could you check please if you have the latest driver? See these forum posts:
      Feel free to contact me again if that should not solve the problem, please also let me know if it does so I can adjust the instructions…


      1. Daniel,

        I did download from that site the latest drivers, then I un-installed and re-installed just to be safe. That did not cure it, but I also think you have pointed me in the right direction, I duplicated the installation on an adjacent windows 10 computer and have the same result. Both computers can reach an Arduino UNO with no problem (from the same USB port), so I will continue to explore the device drivers. Thanks for your response! Once I resolve this, I will advise you for your documentation.



        1. Daniel, happy to report that the drivers with Windows 10were fine. Unfortunately the nodeMCU appears to be bad. I ordered a couple more of these and they came in todays’ mail; I plugged one in to the windows 10 system and it fired right up tonight. Now I can add the sensor and the oled and play, woo-hoo!

          Thanks again for your quick response!

          Kentucky, USA

  6. Only ever been using 8266 as a wifi board for an arduino. This sounds much more interesting.
    I really want to buy your handy box, but I live in Sweden. Any chance of finding way for us Europeans?

    1. Hi again,
      I now noticed that you also had your own shop. Order is now completed. Please disregard the above. Thanks.

    1. Very nice. I was hoping that the winds could be included and looks like you nailed it with an arrow and value. Still waiting for my color display in the mail so can’t wait to see how it works.

    2. Am having trouble compiling your code, keep getting the following error:
      Arduino: 1.8.1 (Windows 10), Board: “NodeMCU 1.0 (ESP-12E Module), 160 MHz, 115200, 4M (3M SPIFFS)”

      Build options changed, rebuilding all
      C:\Users\Danny\Documents\Weather Station Bodmer\esp8266-weather-station-color-masterbodmer\esp8266-weather-station-color-master\esp8266-weather-station-color\esp8266-weather-station-color.ino:44:58: fatal error: TFT_ILI9341_ESP.h: No such file or directory

      #include // Hardware-specific library


      compilation terminated.

      exit status 1
      Error compiling for board NodeMCU 1.0 (ESP-12E Module).

      This report would have more information with
      “Show verbose output during compilation”
      option enabled in File -> Preferences.

      I have all the libraries loaded, but still cannot determine why I am getting this compile error. I have set up the display wiring according to your example.

      1. Bodmer thanks for your post on the fork of Daniel weather station color. I must have had some garbage in my IDE folder, have corrected the problem and have your version up and running. Thanks again to you and Daniel.

  7. Hi, there! considering the shortage on IL9431 display (even Banggood) and some vendors sending IL9225 (176×220) to anyone, is someone worked/working or willing to work on porting the code to use such display even sacrificing some graphic features? I can start to work from zero but my time availability is so short that to the time of progress it will be too late or other more thrilling things will be out there.

    1. This is an issue introduced with an update to the Adafruit ILI9341 library I believe. Try reverting back to a previous version (1.0.2 worked I think). I ran into this a month or so ago and it took the better part of a day to track it down. The issue may have been fixed recently, but I haven’t tried the most recent release of the library.

  8. Funny. I just two boards of which I think are ESP-01s. I can’t understand the comment about shorts in a breadboard. Their 8-pin connectors have 2.54mm or 0.1″ pitch. So they’ll fit well into a common breadboard.

  9. I uploaded the World Clock demo an hour ago and noticed at 10:30pm CDT it was showing New York time as 15:30. What caused this? Where is the time zone (+ or – hours from UTC, and DST enable/disable) information set? Now as I type this at 11:40pm, it is now showing NY time as 00:40. What happened to correct the NY time (I assume the other world times were and still are correct)?

  10. Hello, I’ve tried the trick to power the screen through the digital pin and I’ve run into trouble : my wemos was not able to communicate by serial link anymore. Moreover, the final size is so small that the USB cable is heavier than it and I’ve difficulties to maintain the whole assembly on my desk, turned to my direction.

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