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Apple Maps Hits The Road — And, Eventually, The Air — To Collect Street View Data

Apple technicians drove across 40 localities last month as it looks to add more details to Maps updates. It's also considering the use of drones to get a bird's eye view of the landscapes it covers as well.

Taking a page out Google’s and HERE’s use of camera-mounted cars to capture images and data from actual streets featured on Apple Maps, technicians for the Cupertino company’s mapping unit began hitting the road between Nov. 7 and Nov. 20 to gather info for future updates.

Similar to what Google and HERE do, Apple has promised to blur licenses and faces within the images it collects before publication.

But Apple is apparently not stopping where the rubber meets the road. It’s also considering ways to take to the skies to get a bird’s eye view of the outdoor — and indoor — landscapes it seeks to map.

In March, Apple received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate an unmanned aircraft system to conduct data collection, photography, and videography,” according to Bloomberg News. The report noted that Apple has already hired an executive from Amazon’s Prime Air division to help run the drone team. Amazon, along with Walmart, DHL and other large enterprises, have been working on the use of drones for home delivery.

The FAA has already granted special permission for more than 5,300 commercial drone uses. But before Apple can fully take off, there are some restrictions in place that might limit how extensive its use of drones for wider purposes of mapping cities and commercials districts.

For example, the FAA prohibits commercial drones from flying over people and buildings.  The FAA’s 624-page rulebook permits commercial drones that weigh less than 55 pounds to fly during daylight hours. These unmanned aircraft much also remain no higher than 400 feet in the air, except to avoid a structure like a tower. Commercial drones must also remain within the sight and communication of its operator, who must be at least 16-years-old and pass an aeronautics test every two years by the TSA.

In any case, Apple has no plans to deploy drones at the moment. But it clearly is aware that it needs to be ready the competitive environment among mapping platforms shows no sign of slowing thanks to the rise of mobile and Internet of Things usage, along with on-demand services that are heavily reliant on location accuracy and data.

More recently, Apple Maps have continued to roll out new features such as parking and transit data for its recent iOS 10 redesign.

And while Apple ushered in the explosive use of beacons when it released iOS 7 three years ago, it is also planning some improvements to its iBeacon proximity software system in the face of last year’s challenge from Google’s Eddystone.

As Bloomberg News noted, Apple acquisition of Indoor.io in 2015 was intended to build on its purchase of in-venue navigation platform WiFiSlam two year prior.  Along the way, Apple also bought crowdsourced geo-data platform Locationary, and then HopStop.

After absorbing those startups, Apple set to work on attracting local businesses to its location platform with the late 2014 introduction of Mapping Connect, a free, self-serve portal that allows businesses to add or amend their listings and related place-based content.

While much is made of the competition with Google Maps, it’s important to note that Apple Maps has always remained relevant because a lot of traffic gets driven to it as the default on any iOS platform. And while it knows from its earliest experience that it can’t simply expect to benefit from that natural benefit alone. It needs to be perceived to be as good as Google.

Furthermore, as Apple is still primarily a device and services business — not an ad platform, though Google is changing its dynamic there as well with Pixel and Google Home — Apple’s motivations in the location space remain different from its rival’s. In that sense, keeping up is enough for Apple. However, by the same token, falling behind Google is unacceptable.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.