Learning from Aircraft Spotters for Competitive Intelligence

Aircraft spotters use tracking sites to obtain information on flight paths, enabling them to take pictures of aircraft taking off or landing at airports. Did you know that these tracking sites and methods could also be useful when conducting OSINT investigations?

Today I would like show another aspect of OSINT when it comes to competitive intelligence (CI). Wikipedia defines CI as ‘the action of defining, gathering, analyzing, and distributing intelligence about products, customer, competitors’ in order to support decision making processes in companies. Depending on the actual case, we will do research in a variety of different sources, ranging from company databases, to credit rating services, and in some cases even deep-dive into social media. However, every once and while we might have to look into something more exotic.

The following case is completely fictional, but could easily take place as described.

German Special Forces are currently looking for a new light support helicopter. Two companies are in the race for this very lucrative contract: Airbus with its new H-145M design and a second company, which employs us to gather information on the Airbus product.

One of the key intelligence questions our customer wants us to answer is about the performance of the H-145M. We find out that Airbus conducts its testing at the airfield in Manching near Munich, Germany. Whenever aircraft fly through public airspace, they are required to switch on their ADS-B systems, which allows them to be tracked, avoiding collisions with other aircraft and thus ensuring flight safety. I would like to point out, that certain military or government flights are conducted without enabling ADS-B tracking. Another relevant point is that the tracking depends on a network of mostly private ADS-B receivers and is lacking full global coverage. However, Germany has a pretty decent coverage.

Using ADS-B tracking sites such as flightradar24.com, we can collect data on any relevant flights. As an alternative, we can also buy our own ADS-B tracker for as little as 20 euros and set it up in the vicinity of the airport. This information could prove valuable to our customer, when assessing the overall performance of the competitor’s product.

Today happens to be one of the test days and two helicopters take off from the airfield in Manching. These two are the pre-series H-145M models that we are looking for. For future reference, we can always identify them by their registration numbers.

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Registration details a H-145M

The following picture shows the flight path during these tests. Looking at the flight path might give an indication on what exactly was tested.

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We also obtain detailed information regarding the speed and altitude of these flights. This might lead to clues on the peak performance values.

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Of course, our work does not end here. We continue to track every movement of the two identified helicopters. Future operations might even include getting high-resolution videos or photos of the helicopters and maybe even HUMINT to receive a couple more details.

This scenario unravels just one of the ways in which data from ADS-B tracking sites can be utilized. It can also be helpful when tracking specific flights or monitoring smaller airfields to find a specific plane. In the future I will provide another case in which the tracking of an airplane led to an important intelligence finding.

Until then, why you don’t you have a look at the traffic above you yourself!

Matthias Wilson / 08.11.2018