Animated Flight Visualization

So far we’ve only looked at static lifeless graphics with a few rollovers for additional information. Let’s make an animated visualization that shows the active flights over time between Melbourne and Sydney in Australia.

See the Pen D3 – scales by Haig Armen (@haigarmen) on CodePen.

The SVG document for this type of graphic is made up of text, lines and circles.

<svg id="chart" width="600" height="500">
  <text class="time" x="300" y="50" text-anchor="middle">6:00</text>
  <text class="origin-text" x="90" y="75" text-anchor="end">MEL</text>
  <text class="dest-text" x="510" y="75" text-anchor="start">SYD</text>
  <circle class="origin-dot" r="5" cx="100" cy="75" />
  <circle class="dest-dot" r="5" cx="500" cy="75" />
  <line class="origin-dest-line" x1="110" y1="75" x2="490" y2="75" />

  <!-- for each flight in the current time -->
  <g class="flight">
    <text class="flight-id" x="160" y="100">JQ 500</text>
    <line class="flight-line" x1="100" y1="100" x2="150" y2="100" />
    <circle class="flight-dot" cx="150" cy="100" r="5" />


The dynamic parts are the time and the elements within the flight group and the data might look something like this:

let data = [
  { departs: '06:00 am', arrives: '07:25 am', id: 'Jetstar 500' },
  { departs: '06:00 am', arrives: '07:25 am', id: 'Qantas 400' },
  { departs: '06:00 am', arrives: '07:25 am', id: 'Virgin 803' }

To get an x position for a dynamic time we’ll need to create a time scale for each flight that maps its departure and arrival times to an x position on our chart. We can loop through our data at the start adding Date objects and scales so they’re easier to work with. Moment.js helps a lot here with date parsing and manipulation.

data.forEach((d)=> {
  d.departureDate = moment(d.departs, "hh-mm a").toDate();
  d.arrivalDate = moment(d.arrives, "hh-mm a").toDate();
  d.xScale = d3.time.scale()
    .domain([departureDate, arrivalDate])
    .range([100, 500])

We can now pass our changing Date to xScale() to get an x coordinate for each flight.

Render Loop

Departure and arrival times are rounded to 5 minutes so we can step through our data in 5m increments from the first departure to the last arrival.

let now = moment(data[0].departs, "hh:mm a");
const end = moment(data[data.length - 1].arrives, "hh:mm a");

const loop = function() {
  const time = now.toDate();

  // Filter data set to active flights in the current time
  const currentData = data.filter((d)=> {
    return d.departureDate <= time && time <= d.arrivalDate

  render(currentData, time);

  if (now <= end) {
    // Increment 5m and call loop again in 500ms
    now = now.add(5, 'minutes');
    setTimeout(loop, 500);

Enter, Update and Exit

D3 allows you to specify transformations and transitions of elements when:

  • New data points come in (Enter)
  • Existing data points change (Update)
  • Existing data points are removed (Exit)
const render = function(data, time) {
  // render the time'.time')
    .text(moment(time).format("hh:mm a"))

  // Make a d3 selection and apply our data set
  const flight ='#chart')
    .data(data, (d)=>

  // Enter new nodes for any data point with an id not in the DOM
  const newFlight = flight.enter()
    .attr('class', 'flight')

  const xPoint = (d)=> d.xScale(time);
  const yPoint = (d, i)=> 100 + i * 25;

    .attr('cx', xPoint)
    .attr('cy', yPoint)
    .attr('r', "5")

  // Update existing nodes in selection with id's that are in the data'.flight-dot')
    .attr('cx', xPoint)
    .attr('cy', yPoint)

  // Exit old nodes in selection with id's that are not in the data
  const oldFlight = flight.exit()


The code above renders a frame every 500ms with a 5 minute time increment:

  • It updates the time
  • Creates a new flight group with a circle for every flight
  • Updates the x/y coordinates of current flights
  • Removes the flight groups when they’ve arrived

This works but what we really want is a smooth transition between each of these frames. We can achieve this by creating a transition on any D3 selection and providing a duration and easing function before setting attributes or style properties.

For example, let’s fade in the opacity of entering flight groups.

const newFlight = flight.enter()
  .attr('class', 'flight')
  .attr('opacity', 0)

  .attr('opacity', 1)

Let’s fade out exiting flight groups.

  .attr('opacity', 0)

Add a smooth transition between the x and y points.'.flight-dot')
  .attr('cx', xPoint)
  .attr('cy', yPoint)

We can also transition the time between the 5 minute increments so that it displays every minute rather than every five minutes using the tween function.

const inFiveMinutes = moment(time).add(5, 'minutes').toDate();
const i = d3.interpolate(time, inFiveMinutes);'.time')
  .tween("text", ()=> {
    return function(t) {
      this.textContent = moment(i(t)).format("hh:mm a");

t is a progress value between 0 and 1 for the transition.

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