Data wizard Aaron Koblin is intrigued by domestic flight patterns, and after watching this video you will be too.

How many airplanes are above our heads during the height of the day?

Aaron Koblin knows the answer: It can be more than 19,000 in the United States. And thanks to his wizardry with FAA data, we can see how these aircraft drift from city to city in this mesmerizing computer visualization.

Air traffic is heavy in the early evening but hits a low of about 4,100 in-transit flights around 4 a.m. EST. It rockets upward again after the sun rises, peaking around 3 p.m. Take-offs flow in a wave across the country as people wake up and get to the airport. On the East Coast, flights shoot out of major hubs like New York City and Atlanta like the sparks of exploding fireworks, while solitary jets squirm around like protozoa in less-populous areas like Canada and the Gulf of Mexico.

Koblin, a graduate of UCLA who's worked in the gaming industry, created this wondrous map with the Processing programming tool, Adobe After Effects and the 3-D animation aid Maya. The visualization does not include a date for his data set, but an earlier version called "Celestial Mechanics" that he helped spawn with UCLA buds was from 2005. About that project, the artists write:

At any given moment, there can be 30,000 manmade objects in the sky above us: Planes, helicopters, satellites, weather balloons, space debris, and other diverse technologies. They watch, they guide, they protect, they communicate, they transport, they predict, they look out into the stars. In less than 100 years, the deep blue has become a complex web of machinery.

Our lives are closely tied to these networks in the sky, but a disjunction has occurred between us and the aerial technologies we use every day. We rarely consider the hulking, physical machines that have now become core to our lifestyle. By not being aware of the hardware we use every day, we may also not be aware of the social, economic, cultural, and political importance of these technologies. By visualizing them, it may lead to a better understanding of the forces that are shaping our future.

Koblin's flight obsession has led to other renderings of the frenzied anthill above the clouds, including Atlanta and the Southwest. Even more are posted at his Flight Patterns page – check out the oil-black blobular version of his map. The guy's not content with tinkering around with just air travel, though. Worth a look is this video showing how Amsterdam residents send texts on New Year's Eve and a music video for Interpol, which features a ghostly light grid of New York City.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The Death and Life of the 13-Month Calendar

    Favored by leaders in transportation and logistics, the International Fixed Calendar was a favorite of Kodak founder George Eastman, whose company used it until 1989.

  2. a map of future climate risks in the U.S.
    Maps

    America After Climate Change, Mapped

    With “The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal,” the McHarg Center tries to visualize how the warming world will reshape the United States.

  3. photo: a commuter looks at a small map of the London Tube in 2009
    Maps

    Help! The London Tube Map Is Out of Control.

    It’s never been easy to design a map of the city’s underground transit network. But soon, critics say, legibility concerns will demand a new look.

  4. photo: A man boards a bus in Kansas City, Missouri.
    Transportation

    Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

    The Missouri city is the first major one in the U.S. to offer no-cost public transportation. Will a boost in subsidized mobility pay off with economic benefits?

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×