Sky Scanning

Scanning has a long history, as a male dominated hobby since the invention of radio.  In the UK scanners have been available commercially since the early 60’s. Shorrock Developments Ltd from Blackburn Lancs seem to be the first UK company selling airband radio it cost about £36 pounds about £700 now.


Many are still working today. Shorrock radios used germanium transistors which often developed a fault over time called the tin whisker effect, which caused a reaction inside the can and caused small conductive tracks to form and short the transistor junction. This causes other components to fail and can be hard to fix. I have a fantastic old school radio that uses germanium.  Germanium, is currently experiencing a renaissance as a semiconductor material, attracting interest in the silicon tech industry. It’s perceived as a potential candidate to use well beyond the end of silicon, so its Interesting as ever to see how this part of radio radio history may still part of our digital future, so let’s get back to scanners.

Many aviation spotters have engaged in the hobby of listening to air traffic and other wireless signals have forming communities and groups which have moved online but are now fading.  Scanning air frequencies is a world-wide hobby with a long and mostly undocumented history. Which I am starting to address here.

This photo shows one such group  (Liverpool Echo Jan 12 1967) :”The busy midnight scene at Liverpool Airport, with a Trident from Amsterdam in the centre. It was a bumper occasion for these members of the Merseyside Society of Aviation Enthusiasts”  Clearly one of the men is holding a radio receiver and a not very portable one at that.


I recall my great uncle using one at Bristol airport in the 1970’s when we went on holidays he would be listening in to our flights.

Heathrow aviation society is 52 years old in recent years its volunteers have been enlisted to help combat terrorism. Plane-spotters can now apply for identity cards and a code of conduct encouraging them to report anything suspicious. Scotland Yard backs the scheme, introduced by aviation enthusiasts’ club LAAS International. “Aviation enthusiasts are watching the activities of the airport every day and their legitimate interest can only be to our advantage”  BBC News

Owning a scanner is not illegal, however listening in is, which makes it an odd hobby and this has not deterred people doing it across the globe. Although it seems rare to be prosecuted for it in the UK and it hasn’t stopped an industry grow up around it or the many online groups who share advice and support.

Abroad there have been serious legal ramifications for the hobby in November 2001, fourteen aircraft spotters mostly British apart from two Dutch, were arrested at an open day at a Green air base in Kalamata. They were charged with espionage and faced 20-year prison sentences if found guilty. After six weeks in prison they were released and the charges reduced to the charge of illegal information collection. At the trial in April 2002 they were stunned to be found guilty, with eight of the group sentenced to three years, the rest for one year. They appealed and were acquitted a year later.

Digital encryption of services and the ability to use sites which map out planes flights does mean there is a lot less to listen to the hobby is in decline. The internet is now a bit of a grave yard for past activity, its full of discussion boards, tips and videos of how to use them and were certainly popular with the older generation. Aviation scanners enthusiasts have always managed to keep a low profile. A quick search and you can find tons of related guides and directories, as its legal to own a scanners in the UK but not legal to listen to it. Which meant it’s really been impossible for anyone to enforce and stop people doing it in personal spaces.

Some may recall when artist Scanner, who took his name from the police device and made music from telephone calls which could be picked up from his police scanner, a lot of scanners cover all areas these days and some very old cordless phones can still be picked up.

Scanners pick up parts of the radio spectrum reserved for other uses outside of conventional radio, shipping, CB etc however all of the key emergency services have now moved to digital and are encrypted but it seems there are still signals to pick up across the spectrum with modern day devices and aircraft and marine is still one of them, but perhaps less exciting to those looking for audio drama.

Aviation uses AM radio frequencies rather than FM as it allows more than one signal to come through and doesn’t block so distress signals can be heard even if pilots are on the same frequency.

I found a US radio hack to turn your  FM radio in to a scanner so I had a go trying to make an FM radio into a scanner and enlisted Dan at Tinkersonic hackers club to help. It worked in terms of moving the radio off the dial and on to the higher frequencies but sadly I didn’t pick up anything to listen to at that location. Anyhow here are some of the photos I took of some of my radios hacked open and modified.

I also discovered radio ham pensioner Ian, who has just started his own radio spy museum in his shed in Dover and has put me contact with experts who currently work in the current radio communications industry, they work for ICOM who sell some serious kit and know loads about radio scanning tech and agree the golden age of radio scanning craze is over they sell them and radio telecommunications devices for air land and sea.

I want my installation work at Watermans Gallery in Sept to highlight how much radio activity happens across the spectrum in the Heathrow area past and present and so my next port of call on the blog will look at drones and how radio is used to disable them.