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Searching for the lost, from home

Amazon.com and Google team up to let the public help search for Steve Fossett.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
2 min read

After Jim Gray, a technical fellow for Microsoft Research in Silicon Valley, was lost at sea in January, Amazon.com set up its Mechanical Turk service to let the public help examine Digital Globe satellite photos of the ocean outside of San Francisco Bay for signs of Gray's sailboat. Unfortunately, Gray was never found.

I spent an evening going through these images on Mechanical Turk because I knew who Gray was (coincidentally, his home page at Microsoft Research was the first entry in my "People" bookmarks collection) and because I was curious about the process.

Saturday night, I heard that Google and Amazon had set up a similar process to help in the search for aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett, so I spent some time reviewing those images. This time, there was an extra dimension--a section of the imagery (again from Digital Globe) was uploaded to Google Earth so people working on searches through Mechanical Turk could see the search images in context.

None of the images I reviewed contained anything resembling an airplane, but I suppose negative results are worth something too. I had marked several images during the search for Gray, but I think that's because a line of whitecaps can easily look like a sailboat in low-res satellite images. The cross-like shape of an airplane is less likely to appear in nature.

Another difference in the search for Fossett is that there's much more natural clutter in the land of the American southwest, so I found it took significantly longer on average to review each image just to satisfy myself that there was no sign of aircraft partially concealed by trees or terrain.

Oddly, the one area of satellite imagery available in Google Earth was in a section of California just across the Nevada border from where Fossett took off, and in a direction where I saw no large flat areas--Fossett had said he was scouting for areas to set land-speed records, so presumably he wouldn't be spending time around mountains, at least on purpose.

But I suppose the searchers have to focus their efforts on the areas near where Fossett took off, at least to begin with. Ultimately, however, the search may have to extend much farther. Fossett's plane reportedly has a range of over 560 miles, meaning he could have come down anywhere in a million-square-mile area. On the other hand, I trust someone is trying to deduce which courses Fossett may have set given his plans, then follow those courses out to where Fossett might have encountered mountains or run out of gas. I thought about looking in such areas myself via Google Earth, but there doesn't appear to be any recent imagery other than that one section of California.

Anyway, I very much hope that Fossett will be found alive as soon as possible. He's a remarkably accomplished fellow, doing the sorts of things I imagine I'd do if I had that kind of money, and I hope he's able to continue.