Pssst! Want to buy a Soviet spy photo?
That's what a new company called Aerial Images aims to do. It has joined with a branch of the Russian Space Agency to sell to American consumers formerly top-secret photos from military satellites.
Starting this week, you can buy one of those photos of your neighborhood, your city, or favorite National Park. Aerial Images is selling the photos over the Internet at its www.terraserver.com Web site. Admittedly, this is a little spooky. The satellite technology from which you can pick out your house was once used by Soviet generals, presumably to target nuclear weapons. On the other hand, this is an excellent example of how military technology can be reused to benefit mankind.
"A day doesn't go by that someone doesn't contact us with a new idea for using the technology," says John Hoffman, president of Aerial Images. The Raleigh, N.C., company is getting inquiries from fishermen and farmers to environmentalists and oil companies.
The advantage of this satellite technology is that it yields extremely precise mapping data. Because each shot covers an area 160 by 40 kilometers (100 by 25 miles), it is more accurate than aerial photographs that have to be stitched together. It is also far cheaper.
Consumers can buy small photos for as little as $7.95 or large poster-sized images for up to $55. That's much less than the $500 one might spend for aerial images from an airplane. Some 2,000 Russian photos have already been digitized. With its partner Sovinformsputnik, the nonmilitary branch of the Russian Space Agency, Aerial Images is updating its database with four new launches of Russian satellites. When the missions are complete, the company will have coast-to-coast coverage of the US and major cities around the world.
The technology is piquing the interest not only of individuals, but also governments. For example, Aerial Images is working on a contract with Venezuela that would yield the first accurate maps of that country's remote southern region. The photos could be used by engineers and land planners.
One aim of the project, Mr. Hoffman says, is to resolve individual land claims. Without accurate maps, many of Latin America's rural farmers don't have clear title to their land. Since the satellite cameras can pick out objects as small as two meters (roughly six feet) across, the technology might begin clearing up the tangle of land claims in the region.
The technology raises some concerns. Aerial Images soon plans to move to one-meter resolution. With that, it would be possible to tell whether the vehicle in a driveway is a car or a van. Do we want satellites high above snapping away indiscriminately?
Hoffman says the technology is not an invasion of privacy. At one-meter resolution, the cameras can't pick out an individual or a backyard hot tub. And the photos are not real-time.
Instead, they're snapped in space, recovered weeks later when the satellite comes back to earth, digitized on special Kodak film, then put up for sale on the Internet through a joint project involving Aerial Images, Sovinformsputnik, Kodak, and, of all things, Microsoft.
By executive order of the White House, US companies can't sell satellite photos with finer resolution than one meter. But what technology gives, it sometimes takes away. The commercial world is developing a satellite network that one day will provide real-time photos of what's going on. That will be a big step forward for estimating crop yields and fighting forest fires. It could also become another unwanted inroad into our private lives.
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