June 23, 2014
When planning a road trip or buying a new house, it has become routine to scope out the area on Google Maps.
But what if the images you found weren’t blurry, dated snapshots – but live and crystal clear? You could search for traffic jams 50 miles ahead while driving down the motorway – or check whether you left your garden lights on while away on holiday.
This may sound like CIA-level surveillance, but it may one day be the future of Google Maps –all thanks to the quiet acquisition of a start-up named Skybox Imaging earlier this month.
Founded in 2009, Skybox launched its first satellite into orbit in 2013. In December it beamed back to Earth the first commercial HD video shot from space. For an encore, Skybox’s engineers sent their fridge-sized satellite to float above Kiev, watching in real time as battle lines between police and protesters shifted back and forth.
Anyone who has played around on current versions of Google Earth will have flicked back the scroll wheel on their mouse, casually zooming out all the way to watch the Earth spinning through space, as real-time as we’d ever need or want for something so apparently unchanging. But distance erases detail and the trip back down to the surface of Google Earth takes users through a patchwork of old and new imagery, stitched together from a variety of sources.
And although these pictures may seem detailed enough to us, they’re actually constrained by limits set by the US government. At least, they were until this month. Just one week after Google announced they’d purchased SkyBox, the US Department of Commerce lifted restrictions on high resolution, allowing commercial satellites to trade in what’s been called “manholes and mailboxes” imagery.
“If you imagine a satellite sat above your office then the old resolution could probably make out your desk. The new imagery – where each pixel measures around 31cm – can now make out what’s on your desk,” explains Clive Evans, lead satellite imagery investigator with LGC Forensics.