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Google planes scan cities for 3D mapping

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From vans to planes, Google's plan to create a digital map of the world is going a step further.

We've heard the stories and seen the vans -- creeping down roads and junctions, recording images and footage for the Google Maps feature used worldwide.

In an attempt to create a digital map of the world, Google is now taking things a step further, by deploying a fleet of small airplanes equipped with cameras to create three-dimensional maps of several cities in the United States.

The Internet giant plans to release the first of the 3D maps covering several main cities by the end of 2012, although the specific cities were not disclosed at a news conference in San Francisco this week.

In order to demonstrate the potential of the 3D mapping, a map of San Francisco was revealed at the conference, in which users could switch from street views to aerial footage of the city. The first 3D cityscape is due for release in weeks, according to Reuters.

Peter Birch, a Google Earth product manager, said that the company is "trying to create the illusion that you're just flying over the city, almost as if you were in your own personal helicopter". The airplanes that will collect footage are owned by and operate exclusively for the Internet giant.

The maps will be available as part of the Google Earth app used by Android and iOS devices. As an additional upgrade for the mobile application, Google also announced a version of the maps for Android devices that do not need an Internet connection to access.

According to Google, there are currently over 1 billion monthly users of Google Maps, and the cars used to photograph areas for the Street view service have driven over 8 million km to date.

In terms of privacy, the company insists the technology that is used to take the footage is no different than any form of aerial imagery. The planes in use are all currently manned, and when asked about the possibility of using drones, the idea was quashed -- as the technology is still being analyzed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Image credit: Nosha

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure