For the team that produces Google Street View for Google Maps, the Google Trekker is arguably the most versatile tool in their toolkit. A backpack version of the technology used in a Street View car, the Google Trekker was recently loaned to the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) to map six natural areas across the country. This adventure, described here in more detail, will showcase special areas of Canada’s natural landscape on Google Maps and allow more Canadians to discover their natural beauty.
The six areas being mapped by NCC are:
- The coastal forest in Chase Woods, B.C.
- The badlands of Horseshoe Canyon in Alberta
- Native grasslands at Old Man on his Back Prairie and Conservation area in Saskatchewan
- Happy Valley Forest in Ontario’s Oak Ridges Moraine
- The mixed Appalachian forest in Quebec’s Green Mountains
- The Johnson’s Mills Shorebird Reserve and Interpretive Centre in New Brunswick
While the end result of the collaboration between NCC and Google Canada will yield stunning images, the technology behind Google Trekker is itself extremely interesting – and not just to gear and map geeks! Google Trekker was custom-built in-house by Google, and is typically loaned out to academic institutions, non-profits like NCC, tourism boards and similar organizations that are stewards of natural areas or have an interest in mapping and photographing areas beyond the reach of vehicles.
Aaron Brindle is the communications and public affairs manager at Google Canada. But perhaps “adventurer” should be added to his job title: Brindle has visited some of Canada’s most remote regions – from Iqaluit to the sea ice in middle of Hudson’s Bay – with the Google Trekker strapped to his back. Brindle oversaw the Google Trekker collaboration with NCC, and has worked with similar organizations, including Parks Canada who used the device to map some of Canada’s national parks
Nature Conservancy of Canada using Google Trekker
Google Street View: Mapping the world one photo at a time
Google Trekker is part of Google Street View. Google Street View allows you to zoom in on a particular area, such as your street, and see photographs of that area. On public roads, these photographs are taken by Google’s fleet of Street View cars that are mounted with an array of photographic and mapping equipment. The photographs go through a curation and quality control process at Google that includes blurring out faces, license plates and other identifying information. Google’s Street View program launched in 2007 and has since spread to nearly every corner of the world – partially with the help of Google Trekker and other purpose-built vehicles in the Street View fleet.
Designed for extreme conditions and high-resolution photographs
Google Trekker takes the essential technology from the Street View cars and packs it down into one 40-pound backpack controlled by a portable Android-powered device. This technology includes:
- Two disk drives
- Two battery packs
- Telescopic ball raised two feet above the backpack
- 15 high-resolution cameras
- Accelerometer to gauge speed
The Google Trekker is optimized for weight and power efficiency, since sources of power are not readily available in most remote areas – depending on the conditions, the batteries will last between six and eight hours. The gyroscope ensures that when the cameras are clicking once every 2.5 seconds, the result is a continuity of motion rather than wonky side views, and the GPS devices deliver the pinpoint accuracy that Google Maps users have come to expect. The Trekker is also designed and stress tested for extreme weather temperatures, both hot and cold.
The Google Trekker isn’t just meant to be worn by those travelling on foot. It is calibrated for a number of different ways of getting around – if you get on a snowmobile, it understands that you are on a snow machine and will compensate its performance accordingly. It can also be mounted on a boat, put on a dogsled and has even been on the back of a camel! When NCC was using the Google Trekker in Saskatchewan, it was transported on the back of an ATV – allowing NCC staff to safely get up close to a grazing herd of plains bison at Old Man on His Back ranch.
The Trekker works optimally when the wearer is travelling up to 25 miles per hour, although it can work at higher speeds. However, Brindle does not recommend running with the Trekker – 40 pounds of high tech machinery can really slow you down.
Getting Google Trekker’s images ready and published
Once the Google Trekker has done its job, the organization using it sends the disk drives to Google headquarters, where the imagery is stitched together and Google performs various quality control tasks to ensure that the experience is seamless for its final users. This process can take from a few weeks to a few months.
Users can then view the images in Google Maps by clicking on the peg man at the bottom right of their screen and selecting “Street View.” In addition, Google recently launched a Street View app that exclusively offers a photographic experience of Google Maps.
Nature Conservancy of Canada and Google: A lasting collaboration
Brindle described the Google Trekker collaboration with NCC in glowing terms.
“I am really impressed with what a professional organization they are. NCC takes its stewardship of these areas really seriously. It is such an inclusive organization, and the people there are all about educating and empowering Canadians with information about some of these amazing places. This is a great tool in the NCC’s toolkit to make Canadians more aware. Google Canada is hoping to continue this relationship with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.”
The six areas mapped by the Nature Conservancy of Canada will be available on Google Maps and in the Street View app in early 2016.