Eye-in-the-sky satellite will focus on Allegheny County

Eye-in-the-sky satellite will focus on Allegheny County

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A satellite that has spied on Iraq for the U.S. military is now snapping photos of Allegheny County. County government has approved a $500,000 contract with DigitalGlobe, the Colorado-based outfit whose QuickBird satellite takes pictures for the Pentagon.

In Iraq, the satellite’s photos have helped U.S. troops navigate unfamiliar terrain. Here, the photos are expected to provide the backbone for a major upgrade and update of the county’s GIS, a collection of computerized maps that show the locations of buildings, bridges and hundreds of other things.

DigitalGlobe’s satellite, launched in 2001, orbits the globe at a groundspeed of 17,000 mph and goes around the world 15 times a day. On rare days of clear skies in Pittsburgh, the company can point the satellite’s camera toward Allegheny County. From photos taken 280 miles away in outer space, one can count the number of cars in a parking lot, although one cannot tell if they have license plates.

In the satellite’s photos, anything smaller than two feet wide looks like nothing more than a dot, if it appears at all. Still, that’s a significant improvement over the 12-year-old aerial photos used in the county’s current GIS maps.

When county officials decided to update their aerial photos late last year, they didn’t expect a satellite company to respond to their request for proposals. Traditionally, local governments have relied on companies that take photos from small propeller planes.

Pentagon had earlier signed QuickBird to a $70-million-plus contract in 2001, then followed up with a $500-millon-plus contract last year for a new satellite, to be launched in 2006.

County officials believe QuickBird photos offer several advantages. For instance, traditional aerial photos can make buildings look like they are lying on their sides, due to the angle of the shots. Since QuickBird flies much higher, its photos look like they are shot from directly overhead. Secondly, QuickBird uses digital photography, while aerial photographers use film, which then must be scanned into computers to suit the county’s GIS software.

County officials already are thinking about maintaining a relationship with DigitalGlobe. Since its satellite is always orbiting, the company could provide periodic updates of the county’s appearance and could even give emergency officials an overview of a disaster, like a flood.

While QuickBird has been enlisted by the military, it doesn’t necessarily compare to the government’s own spy satellites, which can discern objects that are as small as 6 inches wide. DigitalGlobe has hired three Pennsylvania-based subcontractors for help on the Allegheny County job.

The county’s Office of Property Assessment also awaits the photos of DigitalGlobe and Keystone Aerial, which will show new construction. And over at the Pentagon, photos from QuickBird will give military strategists new views of Iraq, when the satellite isn’t pointing at Allegheny County.