Aerial software images helps police

Software gives GR bird's-eye view

Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.— With agility that Spider-Man would envy, City Assessor Glenn Beekman drags a virtual tape measure across a digital image of one wing of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. It reads "59.95 feet."

"We've got the entire city plotted like this," said Beekman, who zips his cursor up the side of the hotel facing Monroe Avenue to show it's 126.68 feet tall.

He flits over to Calder Plaza to show the city's iconic stabile is about 28.8 feet high from its base.

Beekman gets his super-hero powers from Pictometry, a new software program featuring high-resolution images shot from airplanes.

The program is gaining popularity among firefighters, police, planners and zoning officials.

The $26,000 program can display detailed photographs of every side of every house, factory, garage, backyard deck and outdoor pool on the desktop screens of city officials.

The software was installed to help Beekman's department conduct a total reassessment of the city's property tax rolls.

It's also being embraced by other city officials who say it allows them to visit an address without having to get in their cars.

That's a big help when the Police Department's Special Response Team is assigned to execute a search warrant at an unfamiliar home, said Lt. Dan Savage. His team uses Pictometry to preview the location beforehand.

"When we pull up to the house, we're able to make sure everyone involved is familiar with the setting without having everyone parade by the place beforehand," Savage said.

Planning Director Suzanne Schulz said the system helped her staff avoid a problem when a homeowner applied for a permit that would have placed a garage too close to his neighbor's home.

Being able to pull up a detailed image of a location helps her staff answer questions for residents, Schulz said.

"We get into a lot of neighbor-to-neighbor issues, and it provides us better information," Schulz said.

With just 11 employees -- down from 22 in 2000 -- Schulz said the software is a time-saver.

Neighborhood Improvement Director James Hurt said it also helps his housing inspectors handle complaints. When his crews inspect alleys for trash, the images help them match nondescript backyards to addresses, he said.

City firefighters are just getting to know the system, but they eventually hope to use the images to identify entrances and hazardous areas when firefighters arrive at a scene, Deputy Chief Laura Knapp said.

Although city officials are pleased with the detailed photos, the images aren't detailed enough to invade privacy, according to Will Smith, marking manager with Pictometry International Corp.

"Our resolution was designed so you cannot recognize people, nor can you read license plates," Smith said. The images "pixilate," or break down into fuzzy dots, at 3.5 inches.

Pictometry has sold its system to more than 400 counties and cities in the U.S. and elsewhere, Smith said.

Dan Pennacchia, chief marketing officer for the company, said the high-resolution images are shot by five cameras mounted in Pictometry's fleet of 50 airplanes.

In northern cities such as Grand Rapids, most of the photography takes place in the fall or spring, when trees have the fewest leaves.

Pennacchia said all of the photos are "geo-referenced" as they are shot and installed in the system.

"From high school geometry, if you know at least two points, you can figure out a third," he said of the company's proprietary system. 

Copyright 2007 Grand Rapids Press
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