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Aerial-Imaging System Becoming Vital

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) _ A year and a half before the sea rushed in, cameras protruding from low-lying Cessna aircraft captured eagle-eye images of every square foot of New Orleans from every direction.

The same aerial-mapping technology helped firefighters quickly size up the damage when a jetliner slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. And 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.

Instead of just the straight-down views that distant satellites gather, a small company called Pictometry International Corp. has developed an oblique-imaging, geo-spatial system to snap vast swaths of America's varied landscape at a 40-degree angle from a few thousand feet in the air.

At the click of a mouse, its unique measuring software can dissect the longitude, latitude, elevation and precise dimensions of every discernible landmark, from fire hydrants in Chicago to lilac trees in Rochester to the levees of New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina.

The graphical tapestries are finding a panorama of uses, notably in the realm of public safety.

``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.''

So far, the six-year-old company has mapped most of the nation's big cities and 140 of the 3,200 counties where 30 percent of Americans live. 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, it said.

The privately held company, based in the Rochester suburb of Henrietta, employs 105 people, is profitable and boasts a perennial doubling of sales that could top $100 million by 2008. Courted by the likes of Bill Gates, it has been showered with calls from Wall Street this year about its potential plans to go public.

Microsoft Corp. signed a five-year licensing deal last spring that will make Pictometry's millions of static digital pictures more readily available on the Internet. Beginning in June, close-ups of individual homes will go on sale for $3 each.

The partnership gave the world's largest software maker a distinct edge in a newly evolving ``visual GPS'' category of online mapping. Google Earth's three-dimensional maps, by contrast, rely on elongated satellite images.

``Where we're taking an image with a 40-degree angle, Google's images probably have a 5- or 10-degree angle, so you're getting a little bit of a side view but not a complete one,'' said Pictometry's marketing chief, Dante Pennacchia.

From planes flying in grid patterns, the land is snapped from at least four and as many as 12 directions and often photographed again every year or two. To assuage privacy advocates, the zoomed-in images turn fuzzy at a point where faces or license plates would become distinguishable.

The patented technology uses ``a high level of triangulation to get accurate measurements and accurately locate these images,'' Pennacchia said. ``All a pilot needs to do is know to fly a plane.''

The images are mostly used by law enforcement and other government agencies as well as a growing array of businesses, from utilities to real estate agents. They help officials of all stripes prepare for high-security events, respond to emergencies, pick up after disasters.

Arlington County, Va., home of the Pentagon, was the first county mapped, in 2001. 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 last August and later helped evacuated residents decide whether or not to return home. Two weeks ago in central Florida, when a brush fire tore across 500 acres, 911 dispatchers scoured the maps for signs of homes and hunting cabins. Finding none was a relief but then they spotted a railway track bisecting the burning land. With a quick call, they managed to stop a freight train from passing through.

Firefighters, SWAT teams and rescue crews speeding to a nighttime blaze, a hostage standoff or a snowmobile accident can pull up views of every high-rise, warehouse and backwoods trail. 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.

Nashua, N.H., bought the system in 2004 with a $54,000 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security and is solving many more property tax disputes without resorting to field trips.

``We get people come in and say 'I don't have that shed anymore, I took it down three years ago' or 'I filled in my below-ground pool,''' said Angelo Marino, the city's geographic information systems coordinator. ``We look at the image, we can verify that'' _ or contradict it.

``I haven't found any city department that hasn't been able to use the system and make their job a little easier,'' Marino said. ``As with everything else, budgets are very tight and you have to do more with the same amount of people or less.''

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.

Wilkinson, who oversees 121 employees, added that ``if it weren't for the technology, we'd have to have 500 people easily.''

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.
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