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Planes overhead (wolframalpha.com)
245 points by bane on Nov 12, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 83 comments

Wolfram Alpha might be the most advanced piece of web technology nobody needs.

Except that it is extremely useful as a powerful calculator for students and professionals doing technical things, and in the process of being very handy teaches people mathematica notation. Just because it's not necessarily aimed at the average person doesn't mean its not aimed at anyone.

I expect Wolfram alpha has done a lot to drive sales of mathematica.

I feel the original comment applies not to mathematica, just to the (alpha - mathematica) subset, much of which seems to exist just to prove it can exist. But I don't begrudge them this at all, it's still cool.

Problem is, every time I think "hey this would be a problem WA could answer!", I somehow get stuck because WA never seems to have the data I'm looking for (last time, electricity prices are always assumed to be US prices even if I say "in Germany"), or it's unable to present me the data in a way that's helpful to me (last time, a bit longer ago, comparing some demographic statistics between 3 countries--I forgot the details).

There was one time it worked for me, when I had to compute the derivative of a Lennard-Jones potential function. Even though it gave me a lot of different answers of the same formula written in complex different ways. I just remembered Mathematica has a Simplify function, maybe that would have worked in WA too.

Entering one's birthday and finding out how many weeks or days you lived is kind of fun.

For general calculations and unit conversions I prefer to use Google Calculator, for the simple fact that the page loads much quicker.

That's basically what I use it for: a "lite" version of Mathematica as a webservice, hidden inside this other thing that claims to be a search engine.

Many students at my (non-US) university use Wolfram Alpha for graphing, simplification of formulas and similar every day, yet most have no idea that Mathematica even exists. If Wolfram wants Wolfram Alpha to drive sales of Mathematica they should do more to advertise that program through the service.

Seems like a pretty expensive marketing tool.

Unless you need to compute integrals, enumerate Bessel functions, use fundamental constants, check units, quickly plot an arbitrary function, etc. In other words, it's an excellent technical calculator, or a more accessible and digestible version of Mathematica.

Nope, I've started building a procedure solar system generator, and I've found myself on it on a regular basis lately.

Its an amazing resource if you need what it has. So I assume as it keeps expanding I'll use it more and more.

I find Wolfram Alpha is the search engine equivalent of an "idiot savant."

Sometimes it works quite well; other times it's completely unable to parse the input and come up with any kind of answer, no matter how many times you rephrase the query.

Actually, I use it quite a lot in mundane dispute-resolving situations, akin to Wikipedia. It lets you easily pull out stuff like 'gdp per capita in 2003 "United Arab Emirates", "New Zealand", "Hong Kong", "Norway", "Israel"', 'languages "papua new guinea", bolivia, kenya', 'hdi in africa', '"oil reserves"/area middle east, "oil reserves"/area north america, "oil reserves"/area china', '(switzerland railway length/switzerland population), (usa railway length/usa population)'

As you can see, the queries can sometimes get rather tricky, but that is fun stuff. Also, it's a super-useful calculator.

Except until you integrate it with Siri (Only iPhone 4S, for now) and suddenly it is the technology everyone needs.

No, you don't understand. Apple saw the potential in the crude and complicated service, streamlined and polished it for humans and added revolutionary state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to give people what they need, when they need it.


I need it all the time for use as a scientific calculator that blows anything else in existence out of the water by a long shot.

Actually it's currently used in Apple's Siri to answer factual questions.

Interesting parallel; the original NeXT computer (also created by Jobs and the iPhone's ancestor by way of NeXTSTEP->MacOSX->iOS) bundled a copy of Mathematica.

Cloudy calculator is an awesome interface to wolfram alpha, right from your browser (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/acgimceffoceigocab...) Just enter something like '10 usd to inr' for quickly converting US dollars to Indian Rupees


That strongly suggests somebody do need it.

I'd like to know the set of people that:

* Go beyond Alpha's capabilities in home use

* See the need for full-on Mathematica

* Are dedicated enough to make full use of it

* Don't already have access to full-on Mathematica somehow (work/uni computer, etc)

* Can't buy a student license ($140)

* Really wants to spend $300 on it.

Hm, how will I ever figure all that out? :)

Would Wolfram Alpha be able to compute that for you?

That's quite cheap for a hobbyist's item (if they already have a computer). Compared with a yacht, or a golfing bat, for example... :)

pocket mathematica on my smart phone (for certain tasks). VERY useful in a pinch.

Replace "nobody" with "nobody who cannot see the matrix..."

It's like a command line interface to the internet.

Right now :)

I think the biggest problem with wolframalpha.com (besides its hard and long name) is functionality discovery. How am I supposed to know it's possible to measure "plane overheads", even if I am on their site?

Anyhow, from the website usage, it looks like it never took off: http://trends.google.com/websites?q=wolframalpha.com&geo...

Wolfram Alpha not being able to sustain the "trendiness" it enjoyed during its original release isn't as bad as one might make it out to be.


That's interesting to see the related searches between the two. Github users, unsurprisingly, also like Node, MongoDB, etc., whereas Wolfram Alpha users play Minecraft and read webcomics (also popular among Github users). In other words, Wolfram Alpha seems to be commonly used by students, presumably in math, physics, and engineering.

Has someone tried using this "overhead planes" query with Siri?

It should be possible because Siri uses Wolfram Alpha for some questions.

I am surprised nobody has mentioned Flightradar24[0] yet. It displays planes on a Google Map with altitude, airline and flight path information. The data comes directly from ADS-B receivers of volunteers, so only planes with ADS-B transponder are shown and the coverage outside of Europe is spotty.

Living in the path of a mid-size airport this tool is great for identifying noisy airplane types.

0: http://www.flightradar24.com/

There's also PlaneFinder: http://planefinder.net/ And CasperFlights (I'm the Flash developer for this one): http://casperflights.com

To be honest, I think Planefinder is the most impressive at the moment, their data is very, very good and their client is pretty decent as well.

It seems all 3 sites use ADS-B receivers as source, so the only measurement in data quality is how many receivers they have and where they are.

I wasn't able to test your Flash software (Flash won't work on my computer), but since you seem to cater to plane spotters mostly: It would be cool to have your data combined with LiveATC.net so that I can see which planes are near an airport and what their pilots are saying.

Wow, that's awesome, and it's totally live. A 747 just flew over our place (Sydney Australia) and it's position on the map was spot on.


Try reversing the search. After I queried "Flights overhead" I got a result set of a couple flights, including Turkish Airlines Flight NO 8.

I then queried for "Turkish Airlines Flight 8 location" and got the current trip and location, which is indeed right on top of me. Now I can see where my friends and family are when they come to visit!

Be cool if you could say "when will the ISS next pass over this location." It seems to interpret that as "where will the ISS be at the next sunrise."

"Next solar eclipse" works though.

You can get the next ISS flyover for your location on your phone if you sign up for this,


It works really well for me, with the direction of the pass, expected brightness, whether the moon is up and so on.

Heavens Above can help you with that: http://heavens-above.com/PassSummary.aspx?satid=25544&la...

But can you figure out to ask it what satellites will be overhead in 1 hour?

... because I sure can't.

Now if only I could type in "cars speeding by my house." Then I might be able to find out who's speeding in my neightborhood at 2:00AM.

One day that'll be a Google result.

Just realized wolfram alpha works really well for doing complicated data conversions, particularly data transfer rates.

    100 Terabytes a month in megabits a second.

Shameless plug: you might like instacalc which can do these conversions too:


You can even use made-up units ("hits", "people", etc... has a pluralizer). I made it as a personal productivity tool and have a slew of updates in the works =).

Ooh Instacalc! I really liked that app when I first heard of it (must be over a year ago?), thanks for reminding me of its existence, I'll check out how far it's come.

Hope the cross-browser issues got solved, I seem to remember that was my major hurdle (I'm on Opera).

Ah, thanks for the note -- I haven't checked it in opera in a while :)

I prefer Google's Calculator feature for that, mostly because it loads so much quicker than WA and (perhaps related) feels slightly more reliable.

Google can do the same, you have to say per instead of a though.

works via siri!!! http://i.imgur.com/SgaeL.png

Sadly Siri doesn't know "What planes are overhead?", though it figures it out if you say "Search wolfram alpha for planes overhead."

You can also query Wolfram by just saying "Wolfram," e.g. "Wolfram planes overhead". See http://www.tuaw.com/2011/10/28/10-cool-things-you-can-do-wit... for more things you can do with Wolfram and Siri.

Where do they get data like speed, bearing, and altitude (at what looks like finer than 1 minute granularity)?

Not sure where Wolfram Alpha gets it from, but that sort of data is available from, for example: https://www.flightstats.com/developers/bin/view/Main/

It says under the table "locations based on projections of delayed data" I would guess that they look at where a flight plan is going from and to and interpolate in between.

I think you're right -- it doesn't match FlightAware's FAA data at at all (at least when comparing in downtown Chicago). FlightAware had many more flights, including non-commercial and cargo.

I'm currently sat in Heathrow airport, one of the busiest airports in the world.

Result: none.

One of the key features of airports is the lack of planes overhead. Also, I think it only works in the US.

US only I thnk - I'm currently in East London with planes above me stacked for landing in Heathrow: Results: None.

Results: No Data Available would be a better result.

So you don't think there is any tolerance in place? ie. You have to be stood directly under a plane for it to be listed? Clearly not.

Shame it's US only, but I imagine it's difficult collating a full worldwide dataset.

I'm an aviation enthusiast also bummed by the fact that this feature does not work outside the US. I live in Spain.

Fortunately, this current thread reminded me to try it out while being close to Newark Intl. Airport (EWR) in New Jersey.

This is what I got and it changes every time I hit refresh, this is a very busy airport: http://i.imgur.com/VnDXH.png http://i.imgur.com/EhWBh.png

the program probably counts an airport as a flight path's end point. so none of the planes is counted as "in flight".

I used Wolfram Alpha when I was taking a cryptography course in college and needed to do really long calculations with exact answers, but haven't been back since. For flight tracking, FlightAware.com (and their new mobile apps) and LiveATC.net (and their mobile apps) are far and away the best to use.

I saw another comment about this working with Siri, which brings up the whole question about integrating Siri with third party apps for me. But I digress...

This doesn't seem to show the fighter jets that regularly zoom overhead at 1,000 feet of altitude or less.

That information requires a whole different API :)

As someone who enjoys watching the planes, I would love to have an iPhone app where you point and click and get a plane data, model number, etc, either from engine noise signature or from silhouette. That's the way to do it.

A la Google Sky Map?

I work right in the flight path of a major airport. Planes overhead all day long. Now I can tell where they're going. Too cool.

flightaware.com has allowed you to do this for years...

I live under the climb out path for LAX north bound flights and landing approach for Burbank. Lots and lots of planes overhead.

Sadly this doesn't work whilst on a plane.

I can usually get my Garmin to work if I'm in a window seat.

I saw a plane outside. It wasn't on Wolfram Alpha. Not gonna go outside because, you know, chemtrails.

Try also: "planets overhead", "satellites overhead", "stars overhead", and "galaxy overhead".

Does not work over the UK. Grrrr

From Turkey, result: none.

Try also sky chart

Data is delayed iirc

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