USA, 15 October 2006: If you were in Los Angeles recently and noticed a twin-engine Cessna Turbo 310 crisscrossing the sky in meticulously parallel lines, several times a day for more than a week, you were probably watching one of Ken Potter’s airplanes. With his wife Mary, Potter runs the Philadelphia-based Keystone Aerial Surveys, which snaps overhead photos of cities and rural terrain.
But lately, Keystone’s client list has started to look a bit different. The flights over LA, for example, were conducted for a major Internet firm like Google, Yahoo! or Microsoft (Potter declines to specify), which are all spending millions rolling out mapping services based on satellite and aerial photographs. The sudden interest in his pictures from the online giants has turbocharged Potter’s business. “We’re now looking to buy more planes and hire more pilots. It just seems like there’s a huge capacity and demand on the Internet for our kind of image collection,” he says.
Keystone isn’t the only imaging company flying high these days. Bird’s-eye photographs of major cities and famous landmarks now sit at the center of some of the most-talked-about Web applications of the year. The best-known is probably Google Earth, which offers a searchable photo-realistic mosaic of the entire globe. The Internet firms believe these overhead photos will become the building blocks for a new wave of virtual services that will let users navigate 3-D simulations of cities and shop in exact replicas of stores.
As a result, scores of decades-old mom-and-pop aerial-mapping firms are suddenly thriving, along with the nation’s two major commercial satellite imagery companies. “The geospatial-imaging industry seems to be at the epicenter of a war between Google, Microsoft and Yahoo,” says Edward Jurkevics of Chesapeake Analytics Group. “It’s a good place to be.”
Google gets the most credit for the boost. In late 2004, co-founder Sergey Brin noticed the work of San Francisco firm Keyhole, which was buying images from the satellite firm Digital Globe. After Google bought Keyhole and renamed it Google Earth, the service’s popularity soared; it was downloaded 100 million times between June 2005 and March this year (and no doubt many times since). Not to be outdone, Microsoft introduced MSN Virtual Earth last year, relying largely on lower-altitude, higher-resolution aerial pictures.
Google, Microsoft and newer players like Yahoo, AOL’s Mapquest and real-estate research site Zillow.com have brought attention to the geospatial-imaging field. Aerial-photography firms are typically small, local operations, led by pilots trying to keep their careers in the sky. The industry generates about $800 million a year in revenues, according to Chesapeake’s Jurkevics, and clients are largely regional governments and engineering firms that are mapping cities and boundaries for further development and public works. The US government insists its two commercial satellite firms, Digital Globe and GeoEye, wait 24 hours before selling any new satellite photos to the public, and it limits how detailed the pictures can be (so as not to reveal military secrets).
Today’s online mapping services offer mostly top-down, 2-D pictures, but hi-tech execs like Bill Gates talk regularly about combining photos from various angles to create a 3-D, “Matrix”-like representation of the real world. Already services like Zillow.com and MSN offer 45-degree-angle views of homes in some major cities (instead of the flat, bird’s-eye view), and Google Earth shows topographic details like mountains. That’s only the beginning.
By the end of the decade, all kinds of imagery—from the sky and the street front—will be crunched into 3-D photorealistic simulations of the actual world. Users will be able to navigate down simulations of familiar streets and walk into virtual stores. “Imagine looking up a driving route online and seeing in 3-D the actual landmarks you will pass along the way,” says Jim Greiner, general manager of AOL’s Mapquest, which is preparing to unveil its own aerial-imaging service later this fall.