Sky-High Map Guys; Google Earth Brought Satellite Photography to the Masses. as Competitors Try to Catch Up, the Old Business of Aerial Mapping Is Taking off in the Internet Age

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Byline: Brad Stone

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 for local governments and engineering firms. But lately, Keystone's client list has started to look a bit different. The flights over L.A., 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, cofounder Sergey Brin noticed the work of San Francisco firm Keyhole, which was buying images from the Colorado Springs-based 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 '05 and March of 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. Earlier this year Microsoft also spent an undisclosed sum for Vexcel, which makes the top-of-the-line, 500-pound digital cameras used by aerial mappers.

Google, Microsoft and newer players like Yahoo, AOL's Mapquest and real-estate research site Zillow?.com have brought attention to the relatively obscure 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 $400 million-a-year commercial satellite industry is also joined at the hip to Uncle Sam. The federal government insists that the two U.S. 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). Though the companies sell images to oil and agriculture companies, they are so dependent on the government that when a third satellite firm lost out on two government contracts awarded in 2004, it had no choice but to put itself on the auction block (the merged company became GeoEye). …