Late last night, an Airbus A340-300 took off from Munich International Airport in Germany. It’s possible that the plane was empty apart from the crew, though it may have been carrying a passenger who was looking to get out of town quickly. The brown-and-white jet, named “Bourkhan,” is owned by Alisher Usmanov, who has been known to visit spas in the Bavarian Alps. At the time of the takeoff, the Russian oligarch had been banned from travel in the European Union five hours earlier.
Twenty minutes later, a Twitter bot created by a college student dutifully fired off a tweet notifying anyone who was watching that Usmanov’s plane was headed east. Hours later, it touched down in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Usmanov’s hometown.
Usmanov’s plane isn’t the only one tracked by @RUOligarchJets. The bot is tweeting updates whenever the movements of 46 jets owned or leased by more than 20 Russian oligarchs hit ADS-B Exchange, a site that collects data from aviation enthusiasts who run their own equipment to monitor airplane movements. Many of the oligarchs have been hit with sanctions and travel bans.
“People have been asking me about Putin for a while. They wanted to know if they could track him,” Sweeney told NBC News. Putin’s jets apparently don’t spend much time in the air, but the ultra-wealthy in his orbit do.
This isn’t the first time that a bot created by Jack Sweeney, the 19-year-old University of Central Florida student, has made the news. Sweeney also runs @ElonJet, which tracks the movements of Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s private jet. Musk grew annoyed with the attention and sent Sweeney a DM on Twitter, offering him $5,000 to shut the account down. Sweeney countered by asking for a Model 3, then $50,000, then an internship. He even explained to Musk where his bot sourced its data, which is all publicly available. So far, Musk hasn’t taken him up on any of the counter-offers.
Sweeney’s bot is made possible by the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast system, which is required for many aircraft flying in the US and the EU. With ADS-B, aircraft use GPS and their onboard sensors to calculate and periodically transmit their position, altitude, and velocity, and anyone with the appropriate receiver can listen for the broadcasts. The system has revolutionized air traffic control, providing accurate position and velocity data every second, far more frequently than the typical five seconds that ground-based radar offers.
ADS-B receivers can be found for just a few hundred dollars, and ADS-B Exchange has a brief guide that explains how people can hook those receivers up to a Raspberry Pi computer and share data with the site.
While all this data is public, and ADS-B Exchange offers a simple interface for users to query tail numbers to monitor aircraft movements, the average person won’t take the time to cross-reference the data with a list of aircraft that have been linked to Russian oligarchs. Sweeney’s bot not only does the heavy lifting, but it also shares the results on one of the world’s most heavily trafficked social media platforms.
It’s possible that Sweeney’s @RUOligarchJets bot could serve as a form of open source intelligence in Russia’s war in Ukraine. Just as investors and Musk fans use @ElonJet to hypothesize about what the billionaire is doing, oligarch jet movements may reveal real-time details about what’s happening inside Russia.
On Friday, for example, a Gulfstream G650ER linked to Roman Abramovich took off from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel and landed at Vnukovo Airport outside Moscow before heading to Azerbaijan a couple of days later. This morning, it returned to Moscow and took off three hours later. Abramovich is reportedly trying to negotiate an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.