How to identify planes and planets with your mobile phone

Last Saturday found our family sitting outside on a warm evening, relaxing after a barbecue. The sky was so clear that we were able to clearly make out two contrails and the shape of an aircraft. This was way above our heads and clearly not a plane using the local airport.

While my relatives discussed its likely route and estimated its height, I quietly took out my iPhone. I felt sure I had heard of an app that could tell you about planes overhead. Leaving them to their discussion, I asked Google.

Plane Finder AR for iOS

Within a couple of minutes, I had used the 3G network to download Plane Finder AR.

I tapped on the app, pointed my iPhone’s camera at the plane and within seconds I knew that the plane was en route from London Heathrow to Morocco. I also knew its flight number and its height (which turned out to be within 1000 feet of my grandfather’s estimate).

Plane Finder on iPhone
Plane Finder on iPhone

Sometimes technology can leave you speechless and this was one of those times. I spent quite a while looking out for planes after that. Every time, just pointing the app at the aircraft told me its origin, destination and various other information.

Thinking about it, the combination of publicly available flight information, a compass and a reliable GPS is probably all that it took to make this app, but that’s really not the point. There was nobody at that barbecue that wasn’t truly amazed by what it could do.

SkySafari for iOS and Android

Looking at planes isn’t the only reason I have found to point my iPhone at the sky.

We are lucky enough to live in an area with very little light pollution. On a clear night, we have a superb view of the stars. As a result, SkySafari was one of the first apps I downloaded for the iPhone (it is also available for Android).

Sky Safari uses GPS to overlay a map of the solar system when your mobile phone is pointed at the sky, making it easy to identify individual stars and planets. It’s then possible to drill down to specific information about each of them.

SkySafari gets a little technical. I know nothing about astronomy, so some of the information at my fingertips is a mystery to me. However, it is great when someone points and says “I think that’s Venus,” and I can whip out the iPhone and confirm it!

Another great feature of SkySafari is its “SkyWeek” functionality that informs you about significant events in the sky such as eclipses and other phenomena. For those keen to learn about astronomy, this information is a great starting point.

Although neither of these sky-based apps are things I use daily, they are fascinating demonstrations of the things that smartphones can do. Two of our Saturday night party members have now ordered iPhones – not because they are great phones, not because they are good for browsing the Web and not because they are fantastic media players.

They’ve ordered them because they can point them at planes and see where they’re going.