In Nevada, the search for missing aviator Steve Fossett goes on — and now thousands of amateurs are joining in from their desks. They're using the Internet to look at satellite photos of the part of Nevada where Fossett disappeared, searching for traces of his missing airplane.
Steve Fossett had only been missing for a day or two when his friend, billionaire Richard Branson, told reporters that he was talking with Google, hoping that the company's storehouse of satellite images might help locate the missing aviator.
Getting New Photos
When people who regularly work with satellite images heard this, some of them thought it didn't make sense at first.
"I sort of had a couple of reactions," says Adena Schutzberg, executive editor of Directions Magazine, which covers the map-making industry. "My first was, Google can't really help him, because Google doesn't actually create the imagery that's in its products."
Google just buys those images from companies — or governments — that operate satellites. Also, the gorgeous pictures of our planet that are available through Google Earth were taken months or years ago, they won't show you an airplane that went missing last week.
"But then my second thought was ... that's a really good idea," Schutzberg says. "Because if he gets in touch with Google, then Google can get in touch with the people who provide the data, and then we're up and running."
That's exactly what happened. Google put in an urgent request to two companies — GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. Both operate satellites that come within a camera shot of any spot on the globe every few days. Last week, those satellites collected images of the section of Nevada where searchers hope to find Steve Fossett.
Getting Help Online
Google passed those images along to Amazon.com, because Amazon has a way to let thousands of people share the job of searching for Steve Fossett.
Amazon's tool divides the whole search area — 6,000 square miles — into small squares about 300 feet across. It assigns each of those small squares to anyone who signs up to help.
"And they click 'yes, there is something interesting in this image,' or 'no, there is nothing interesting in this image,'" explains Peter Cohen, the director of the effort at Amazon.
"We've had tens of thousands of people in the last three days sign up and participate in this," Cohen says. "Which, I think, is a testament to the power of what the Internet can do."
Of course, searchers in airplanes have already flown across this entire section of Nevada, inspecting it as closely as they possibly can.
But Schutzberg says the online search adds something. The pictures are quite sharp; anything bigger than two or three feet will show up.
"And the fact that you can distribute the work of exploring these images across the globe, literally — you've got these fresh eyes — I think that's a real big advantage," she says.
The international community of online searchers has marked several thousand small images as "interesting" and worth closer attention. Google forwarded those images to search teams in Nevada. So far, though, none of the tips has led to Fossett.
If you're wondering how much this cost, the satellite company GeoEye typically charges $7 per square kilometer for its images; a picture of 6,000 square miles would run about $100,000. The most valuable part of this operation, though, is the time that thousands of people donated staring at images of a distant, desolate landscape; one that they will probably never see up close.