Saturday, February 14, 2015

Google Maps goes coastal with unmanned boat

A Street View Trekker mounted on an autonomous Wamv robot passes the Exploratorium.
and see the San Francisco Shoreline streetview imagery in Google Maps at

From SFGate by Kristen V. Brown

Recent visitors to San Francisco Bay might have spotted something strange: a small unmanned vessel zipping through the water with a mysterious sphere mounted atop its two parallel hulls.
“What is that?” one bystander asked recently, as the watercraft hugged the shoreline off of Fort Mason.
“Is it a water drone?” asked another.

For the past few months, the nonprofit San Francisco Baykeeper has been remotely piloting the craft — a catamaran topped with a loaner Google Street View camera.
In a teaming of tech and environmental advocacy, Baykeeper is using the camera’s 360-degree imagery to capture the shoreline’s rising sea levels, mapping a meandering 400 miles of the bay’s coast.
The idea is to give people a close-up view of the shore, the kind of view typically available only from a boat.
This, Baykeeper hopes, will rile them up.
“A lot of people know about sea level rise,” said Sejal Choksi, an environmental lawyer and Baykeeper’s interim director.
“We are hoping these images will really bring the reality home to the public, that they will look at pictures of places they know and say, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to be underwater.’”
Google’s Street View cameras have been affixed to cars, boats, people and even camels. But this catamaran, a Wave Adaptive Modular Vessel that keeps the camera steady even as the tide swells, is a first.

Baykeeper initially planned to use kayaks and GoPro cameras to document small parts of the bay. After Baykeeper won a $100,000 grant from Google, though, the Mountain View tech giant offered up its imaging gear.
The camera consists of 15 lenses atop a mast, each angled in a different direction to be stitched together to create a panoramic view.
The catamaran is battery-operated, and controlled via joystick from Baykeeper’s patrol boat.
“It’s basically a large-scale video game,” said Karin Tuxen-Bettman, a Google employee and wetlands-mapping expert who is helping Baykeeper with the project.

Baykeeper began mapping in October.
After more than 20 eight-hour days on the water, the organization has documented 300 miles of shoreline, including wetlands and deltas.
Already, the mapping expeditions have proven revelatory, said Ian Wren, Baykeeper’s staff scientist.
“We noticed in some areas the wetlands are just a few inches above high tide,” he said.
“That means they are at risk for flooding, which could destroy those ecosystems.”

Wren has also discovered abandoned ships at risk of polluting the bay as they rot.
Once the mapping is done, Baykeeper will display the images in interactive maps on its website. They will also be available through Google’s popular Street View tool.
“A lot of agencies talk about sea level rise, but there is not a lot of public input,” Choksi said.
“These kind of issues should be more community-based. They are local, regional problems.”

In addition to using the images to raise public awareness, the nonprofit hopes to establish a baseline against which researchers can measure sea levels in the future.
There is significant research indicating that the global sea level is rising now at a faster rate than in the past.
The Global Mean Sea Level has risen by 4 to 8 inches since record keeping began in 1880. (Sea-level rise is caused by two main things: thermal expansion due to the warming of the oceans and the melting of land-based ice such as glaciers and polar ice caps.)

Baykeeper is not the first environmental group to receive Google’s Street View technology.
Through, the company’s nonprofit arm, Google has lent its cameras to researchers studying the Galapagos Islands, Tanzania’s Gombe National Park and the Colorado River, among other locations.
Nonprofits, researchers and government tourism agencies can apply to borrow the device.

Tuxen-Bettman said she hopes to eventually work with local governments and nonprofits to map all of the waterways feeding San Francisco Bay.
It might be useful for planning purposes, like documenting infrastructure that might need to be replaced or repaired.
“We want people to see that this kind of information could really be useful,” she said.

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