Bangalore: There will soon be a local variant of Google Earth, the iconic and controversial service from Internet search company Google Inc. that allows ordinary people to take a close look at most parts of the world on their computer screens, using satellite images and maps.
The Indian Space Research Organization (Isro) is planning to launch a similar Web-based service that will allow users to check everything from the exact location of the new restaurant where they have booked a table for the evening to the state of flood-ravaged villages in Bihar.
The new mapping service will be called Bhuvan, which is the Sanskrit word for earth. “The content generation is taking time. We are doing first (the) internal evaluation and then the (public) launch,” said V. Jayaraman, director of the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) an Isro unit in Hyderabad that specializes in satellite image processing and distribution. He did not specify a launch date. Earlier, in November, the space agency had set a March deadline for Bhuvan to be operational.
The Indian space agency will use images taken at least a year ago by its seven remote-sensing satellites in orbit around the earth, including Cartosat-1 and Cartosat-2. These satellites shoot images as small as a car on the street, to build a three-dimensional map of the world. Details such as roads and soil patterns on the maps would be available only for the Indian region, however.
Bird’s-eye view: A satellite image by Cartosat-2 of Khairatabad and its surroundings in Hyderabad. Such satellites shoot images of objects as small as a car to build a three-dimensional map of the world.
Bhuvan, which uses high-resolution images, will comply with India’s remote sensing data policy, which does not allow online mapping services to show sensitive locations such as military and nuclear installations. High-resolution images are those that show locations of 1 sq. m or less on earth.
Even specialist users such as urban planners and internal security agencies need satellite images, as long as they are of recent vintage. Such content can be priced at a premium. Dated images are usually sold at a discount or offered free to researchers.
Google buys high-resolution imagery from service providers such as GeoEye Inc. for Google Earth, an application a user needs to download to a computer. He can then create his own content on the maps, either by hosting photos of homes or restaurants or by tagging them with geographical positioning system information.
Unlike Google Earth, the Bhuvan application will not be downloadable and will not allow users to host content in the near future. “We are not competing with Google,” said Jayaraman. A Google spokesperson declined to comment.
According to P. Nag, director of the National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organisation, a Kolkata-based mapping agency that uses remote-sensing data to build India’s atlas, the Bhuvan project demonstrates the country’s expertise in both information and space technology.
“Bhuvan is one project where high technology will benefit common people. In the current economic slowdown, if someone needs to analyze land for a project, the platform could be used and at no cost,” said Nag, a former surveyor general of India.
Analysts say that a combination of putting high-quality and high-resolution images online, and opening up the application programming interface (APIs) for users to use the database would help users to take full advantage of the new platform. APIs are a set of programming tools to build software applications.
“Even in a village, if you need to analyse crop patterns, the images should be of high quality. And there should be tools that come with it for people to analyse them,” said Rakesh Verma, managing director of CE Info Systems Pvt. Ltd, which runs the online portal mapmyindia.com
Others such as Suvret Kher, an independent geographical information system expert, advocate opening of APIs would help people to embed Bhuvan in their own customized applications and overlay their own data, making for a more effective use of the product. “That is one way to popularize the use of the imagery,” he said.
Jayaraman of NRSC said the Bhuvan project is being built in phases and it would get feedback from users before fine-tuning the product.
“People can use the maps on Bhuvan and then embed information from Bhoo Sampada, a repository of land use and land cover data of the country and the national natural resources management system. That will happen,” said Jayaraman.