Why Google Maps blurring would set us back

Robotics researcher Keith Sevcik says censoring detailed images of sensitive areas, as proposed by a California assemblyman, would stunt search-and-rescue efforts.

Editor's note: This guest post by Drexel University researcher Keith Sevcik is in response to statements made by California assemblyman Joel Anderson in a Q&A conducted earlier this week with CNET News.

California Assemblyman Joel Anderson wants to censor Google Earth and other satellite mapping services from providing detailed images of sensitive areas.

Under the guise of preventing terrorist attacks, the bill seeks to blur satellite imagery of government buildings, medical facilities, schools, and places of worship to remove "air duct"-level detail from the images. If Mr. Anderson's claim--that only "bad people" want to know that level of detail--is true, then count me among them.

I am a robotics researcher at the Drexel Autonomous Systems Lab (DASL) in Philadelphia. At DASL, we develop flying robots and ground vehicles to help emergency responders in disaster recovery and search and rescue.

One of the biggest challenges facing urban rescue robots is navigating city streets, and flying in and around buildings. Satellite images and pictures of buildings were once hard to come by. We often used street maps or low-resolution terrain maps to plot the path of our robots.

With these maps, you could easily tell that your robot was driving through the parking lot behind the school. However, they don't show the street lamp in the robot's way or the telephone wires it's about to fly into. Google Earth and similar programs put these tools at our fingertips, allowing us to focus on building and programming robots.

Without a doubt, these services have advanced the field. Publicly available images are used in computer simulations to make realistic-looking buildings and pinpoint a robot's location. Robotic planes can match onboard camera views to satellite images, showing the extent of damage to a disaster area. Robotic helicopters use them to test window-tracking algorithms in realistic environments.

These are a few of the many applications that have aided in cleanup after hurricane Katrina, fighting wildfires, and building the world's first autonomous cars.

By saying "there are no other uses for knowing on a map where there are air shafts," Mr. Anderson simply ignores the widespread use of these technologies by academia. Enacting this bill would effectively set robotics research back 10 years--to times before realistic photos were readily available. In trying to prevent terrorism, he is actually preventing the advance of search-and-rescue technology.

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