Low-lying Cessna 172s fly in grid patterns over major cities, capturing eagle-eye images of every square foot from just about every direction.
Instead of just the straight-down views that distant satellites gather, the planes photograph America's varied landscape at a 40-degree angle from a few thousand feet in the air. The images are detailed enough to pick out fire hydrants in Chicago, lilac trees in Rochester and the levees of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina.
The small company behind all this, Pictometry International Corp., has found plenty of business, notably in the realm of public safety.
Now, Pictometry is trying to make inroads with the general public.
Tens of millions of the static digital pictures will become widely accessible online this summer through Microsoft Corp.'s new map site, and analysts believe Pictometry's technology — and the high degree of resolution in its images — translates into a distinct competitive edge. (MSNBC.com is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
"Think of this as a long path to a kind of telepresence, the ability to go to places without actually leaving your office or your home," said Rob Enderle, a technology analyst in San Jose, Calif. "The higher the quality of the shot, the more valuable the service is going to be."
So far, the 6-year-old company has mapped most of the nation's big cities and 140 counties where 30 percent of Americans live. The company says urban and rural zones encompassing 80 percent of the population will be shot by the end of next year, as well as big chunks of Canada, Latin America, Europe and beyond.
Pilots are hired to simply fly the planes, outfitted with patented technology that can automatically snap the land from four to 12 directions. Many swaths are photographed again every year or two.
"We have 33 planes flying in the U.S. alone," said Stephen Schultz, the company's chief technology officer. "This spring, we're bringing down 170 terabytes of data. That's a really big number — not quite a gazillion but close."
The images are processed on the ground such that, at the click of a mouse, Pictometry's unique measuring software can dissect the longitude, latitude, elevation and precise dimensions of every discernible landmark.
"On a regular basis, Pictometry helps us get an ambulance to a person who needs help" in an out-of-the-way place, said Ginger Rudiger, who manages the 911 dispatch center in largely rural Polk County in central Florida. "It's like having a magical photo album at your fingertips."
Based in the suburb of Henrietta, Pictometry owes its origins to nearby Rochester Institute of Technology, where Schultz as a computer science student began developing the technology in the 1990s.
The company now employs 105 people, is profitable and boasts a perennial doubling of sales that could top $100 million by 2008. It has been showered with calls from Wall Street this year about its potential plans to go public.
Two Israeli companies, Ofek and Idan, claim to have developed the same oblique-imaging systems, but Pictometry says neither has delivered commercially outside Israel.
So far, Pictometry's aerial images are mostly used by law enforcement and other government agencies.
In Arlington County, Va., the first county mapped in 2001, firefighters quickly sized up the damage when terrorists slammed a jetliner into the Pentagon. Police in Atlanta were able to scrutinize the layout of an apartment complex where suspected gunman Brian Nichols retreated after a courthouse rampage in March 2005.
Images of New Orleans taken in January 2004 gave searchers a better idea of what they were supposed to be looking at after Katrina howled ashore and helped evacuated residents decide whether or not to return home.
And without leaving the office, property appraisers all across Massachusetts — the only entire state mapped so far — can now pick out every swimming pool and rooftop deck that was built without a permit.
In booming Lee County in southwest Florida, where tax rolls have soared above $80 billion from $4.5 billion in 1980, far fewer people are challenging their property assessments. Petitions have plummeted from an average of 2,000 a year to less than 500, said the county's chief appraiser, Kenneth Wilkinson.
One wealthy homeowner who lives along the Gulf of Mexico claimed he was a palm tree farmer and wanted his taxes reduced by $69,000. After a five-year legal tussle, the aerial photos revealed a ruse, Wilkinson said. The man had merely planted 200 palm trees, all lit from beneath, along his huge circular driveway.
Although Pictometry initially focused on government contracts, it kept its eye on the commercial world, a niche that blossomed much more quickly than anticipated.
"When Bill Gates took an interest, that was a big bang for us" and made the company better known, said Pictometry's marketing chief, Dante Pennacchia.
Microsoft already has begun making images available for free on a new maps site it is testing. Beginning in June, under a five-year licensing deal with Microsoft, visitors will be able to order Pictometry's close-ups of individual homes for $3 each, neighborhood-size tracts for $6 and square-mile panoramas for up to $25. People can then take that high-resolution image to make prints and other items.
The company would not discuss financial terms of its deal with Microsoft.
In the newly evolving "visual GPS" category of online mapping, the Microsoft partnership poses a big threat to Google Earth's maps, which rely on satellite images.
While satellite images from above tend to give you rooftops, and street-level images taken from vans for Amazon.com Inc.'s A9 search service get you mailboxes and the front door, Pictometry's 40-degree-angle shots present the tops and sides of buildings as well.
"Once you see ours, you know the difference," Pennacchia said. "It's day and night."
The images do raise privacy concerns.
"There are a lot of people who would not be comfortable with the idea that everything they do in public is potentially surveillable by companies they don't know flying airplanes with this technology," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
But the company said that from the onset, it set a zoom-in or "pixelation" limit to prevent faces or license plates from being distinguishable.
In the broader consumer market, aerial images are bound to find more and more uses.
With photo-editing programs, "you could get a sense for what it would be like if you painted your house a different color _ and how much you would really upset the homeowners' association," analyst Enderle said.
"As this goes forward, 10, 20, 30 years from now, this will be the way you'd be able to go back and reminisce a bit better about the way things were in your hometown."
For now, Pictometry's image-capturing methods give it a leg-up over all others, Enderle said, "but technology moves and, at some point in the future, people will figure out a way to shoot the shots at an angle from satellites and get them to work."