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“I think passive, or automatic, imaging is going to become more and more useful,” Stoffel said. “You know, we have these satellites taking pictures all the time. It’s been a constant over the past 20 years that if you looked at the Earth Resources Technology Satellite [ERTS] data, you’d realize, boy, they do take good pictures—I can see the crop of corn that went bad in Africa. There’s so much data here, how do we make it useful, and how do we get it to the people who can benefit from it? That process of making visual data useful and accessible is beginning to happen, in part due to developments in all the other elements in the imaging chain: You’ll have greater processing power and cheaper, decentralized storage, not just at NSA [National Security Agency] in Washington but available to a lot of people. For example, we have a web service that we use for a variety of applications, one of which is to provide an easy way to keep track of the condition of all the golf courses across Florida. We’ve been scanning golf courses to tell their operators when they need watering. We have another service that’s very real and practical, which looks for leaks in pipes—water, sewage, oil, and so on. We also do other projects, like placement of satellite towers for cell phones.”
Golf course satellite image Boulder, Colorado, satellite image
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We asked Jim about the use of satellite imagery of cities. We had seen visual mapping projects of urban areas such as Cambridge, Massachusetts, at MIT, and Westwood, California, at UCLA, and wondered how information gathered on the ground might be integrated with images captured from space. “We have software now where we scan across a city and give you the 3D view of that city, so you can see the height and location information that pertains to a city scene and ‘fly around’ it. We offer this service today for 30 cities.” Stoffel sees these ventures as only the beginning of meaningful business access to automatic images: “I certainly expect satellite imagery at less than a meter resolution [meaning objects measuring less than a meter will be recognizable in the images] will become available off the web [the electronic equivalent of off the shelf]. Today, I see satellite images every 15 minutes. I just ping my favorite weather channel, and it runs a little movie for me. My system is on all day, so whenever I’m home in Rochester, it’s become a habit to check on the changing weather conditions. Capture is ubiquitous, by satellites all over the world.”
These two images captured by Landsat demonstrate that visual information can be not only useful, but also beautiful
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As exciting as the possibilities are for business use of satellite imagery, there is much more to automatic imaging, as the population of cameras capable of delivering automatic image streams is growing here on earth even faster than it is in space.
Stoffel brought the examples down to earth, “I do think that there will be an explosion of the personal use of webcams because now you can get a webcam acting as its own server; it can have its own IP address, so consumers can set up cameras, connect them to their cable TV Internet portal, and keep track of their homes [or businesses] themselves. A friend of mine in Florida had one set up so he could check on his home and see if a storm hit, and did he have anything left? It is down at the consumer level today, so we’re going to see more and more of that kind of thing.”
On another automatic imaging front, it’s been said that one can’t travel more than a few hundred feet anywhere in London without encountering a surveillance camera, that a full-length feature film could be made of any individual’s travels through that city during a single day based solely on collecting and aggregating footage from surveillance cameras. These observations testify to the evolution of visual surveillance in a city that has been coping with violent political terrorism for decades. In what is becoming known as the “post-9/11 era” (significantly, the only images of the plane crashing into the Pentagon that day were captured by a security camera), much of the West is becoming “Londonized,” but with the benefit of more modern technology. We fully expect that this unhappy set of circumstances will eventually yield some highly positive unintended consequences. After all, the Internet, too, was originally developed for military use: Its purpose was to ensure the survival of control and command capabilities if major U.S. computing centers were destroyed in a nuclear attack.
To get a sense of the possible, consider the value to emergency services—private as well as public—of having access to the visual
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information generated by the surveillance grid. It could be as simple as getting real-time updates on traffic congestion to map the most efficient route to an accident site; or, in a more sophisticated application, emergency police or fire rescue units could combine surveillance images with 3D maps of the streets and buildings they were about to encounter, such as those discussed by Jim Stoffel, to obtain a virtual model of the location they are heading to even before they reach it. Imagine how services of this type could have assisted rescue efforts in the Twin Towers, or how many lives might have been saved had rescuers been privy to images of the condition of the various stairwells provided by surveillance cameras connected to a network accessible via the Internet.