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Google Maps gets an Upgrade

Google has struck a deal with GeoEye for access to data from the GeoEye-1 Satellite, to be launched on September 4th.

While Google Maps already uses data from several sources, the GeoEye-1 is special because it’s the highest resolution commercial satellite ever to be launched. It’s capable of 41 centimeter resolution, meaning each pixel of data can discern an object as small as 41 square centimeters. The US government however limits the resolution commercial enterprises can make available to the public to 50 centimeters (a half meter), so we won’t quite be seeing quite what the GeoEye can do. (The government will of course be able to purchase the full 41cm data.)

Some of Google Map’s data isn’t actually satellite data at all, but rather is patched together from aerial photography. This means the high-resolution and detailed images of major urban areas already available through Google Maps won’t necessarily change much with the acquisition of the GeoEye data – it’s already on-par or better in terms of quality because it was taken from a much lower altitude and not subject to the government’s satellite imaging limits. On the other hand, more remote areas on Google Maps where aerial photography isn’t feasible have at worst lower resolution of 15 meters, which is only good enough to see obvious things like streams and rock formations. The new data could start filling in these areas with more detail, and bringing color imaging to areas of Google Maps previously only available in black and white. The image to the upper right is a simulation courtesy of GeoEye simulating just how far half meter resolution can “zoom in” compared to existing technology.  It’s most telling to keep your eye on the parking lot in the image – notice how at a half-meter you can count the cars, and even tell what color they are.

The financial details of the arrangement haven’t been disclosed, but it is an exclusive deal. No other Internet based mapping service will have access to the same hi-res data. The data is expected to start becoming available in approximately two months time.