from the up,-up,-and-away dept
An increasing number of online services use location information. This places suppliers like Google, with its Google Maps, in a strong position, since creating such geodata for entire countries -- or the world -- is something that can only be undertaken by large, well-funded companies. At least, that was true in the past, but increasingly the free, crowd-sourced alternative, OpenStreetMap, is gaining both contributors and commercial users:
Created by Steve Coast in the UK in 2004, it was inspired by the success of Wikipedia and preponderance of proprietary map data in the UK and elsewhere. Since then, it has grown to over 1 million registered users, who can collect data using GPS devices, aerial photography, and other free sources. These crowdsourced data are then made available under the Open Database License. The site is supported by the OpenStreetMap Foundation, a non-profit organization registered in England.
As the Wikipedia article quoted above goes on to note, many of the earliest contributors to OpenStreetMap were cyclists, who were keen to chart cycle-routes and navigable trails. Charting remote areas that don't have navigable trails is much harder, which is one reason why the data quality around the world is variable. Low-cost drones seem to have great potential in this area, as this post on MapBox explains:
Rather than the map itself, the data generated by the OpenStreetMap project are considered its primary output. These data are then available for use in both traditional applications, like their usage by Craigslist, Geocaching, MapQuest Open, JMP statistical software, and Foursquare to replace Google Maps, and more unusual roles, like replacing default data included with GPS receivers. These data have been favorably compared with proprietary datasources, though data quality varies worldwide.
Last weekend we captured 100 acres of aerial imagery at 4cm [1.6"] resolution. It took less than an hour to fly, and it was easy to publish the imagery on the web using TileMill and then trace in OpenStreetMap. Autonomous flying platforms like Sensefly's eBee paired up with a nimble software stack are changing aerial mapping. Drones like the eBee can cheaply and accurately photograph medium-sized areas, and then the imagery can be made immediately available to everyone.
eBee is a drone specifically designed for aerial photography, with the added benefit that it fits in a suitcase and can be launched by hand. It's easy to imagine even smaller, cheaper and more accurate models appearing in the future, which will allow OpenStreetMap to broaden and refine its coverage yet further. Combined with its zero price, that is likely to make OpenStreetMap's data even more attractive both to existing services and to startups looking to launch new ones based around location.