Thursday, September 13, 2007

Internet Geeks Unite In A Real-Life Game of "Where's Waldo" In The Search For Aviator Steve Fossett

On Monday, September 3, 2007, Steve Fossett, the first person to fly a plane around the world without refueling and the first person to fly around the world in a balloon went missing in Nevada. An airplane he was flying failed to return. No one has any idea where he is. The search for the missing aviator goes on — and now thousands of amateurs are joining in from their desks in what is a real life game of "Where's Waldo?". They're using the Internet to look at satellite photos of the part of Nevada where Fossett disappeared, searching for traces of his missing airplane.

Steve Fossett had only been missing for a day or two when his friend, billionaire Richard Branson, told reporters that he was talking with Google, hoping that the company's storehouse of satellite images might help locate the missing aviator. It is now believed that Fossett was unlikely to have ventured far afield (such as crossing the Sierra Nevada range), but that he was more likely to have been on a local pleasure flight - and that he probably was not surveying sites for the upcoming landspeed record project. The search is now primarily focused on a 30 - 50 mile radius of the ranch, with help from thousands of volunteers on the internet. Now this is cool.

If you're wondering how much this cost, it was about the price of a quick liquid lunch for Mr. Branson. the satellite company GeoEye typically charges $7 per square kilometer for its images; a picture of 6,000 square miles would run about $100,000. The most valuable part of this operation, though, is the time that thousands of people donated staring at images of a distant, desolate landscape; one that they will probably never see up close. Online searchers have marked several thousand small images as "interesting" and worth closer attention. Google forwarded those images to search teams in Nevada. So far, though, none of the tips has led to Fossett.

Fossett is known for his appetite for setting world records. He is well-known for his world record-setting adventures in balloons, sailboats, gliders, and powered aircraft. He made billions of dollars in the financial services industry, and is best known for his 116 records in five different sports, 60 of which still stand. In fact, On August 30th of this year, wearing NASA spacesuits and flying along the crest of the Andes, pilot Steve Fossett and co-pilot Einar Enevoldsontook their 'Perlan' high performance research glider on the world's first stratrospheric glider flight yesterday - surfing the Andean 'mountain wave' to a height of 50,671 feet - breaking the previous record by 1,662 ft. So this guy is no schlock when it comes to flying. But when it comes to him missing, it may be the people on the net that help locate him.

Amazon has set up a website so users can help in the search effort and new satellite imagery has been taken by GeoEye, a company that owns and operates three imaging satellites, and Amazon's Mechanical Turk web service has been used to produced a website so users can search for his plane using this satellite imagery. The Mechanical Turk is a web service that integrates information gathered by humans performing a certain task. To participate, users sign up at the site and provide their addresses to help with the search. They will be shown a single satellite image and should flag any satellite images that contain foreign objects that may resemble Fossett's airplane or parts of a plane.

Amazon's tool divides the whole search area — 6,000 square miles — into small squares about 300 feet across. It assigns each of those small squares to anyone who signs up to help. The pictures are quite sharp; anything bigger than two or three feet will show up. Tens of thousands of people have signed up to participate in this is a testament to the power of what the Internet can do. Fossett took off on Monday morning in a Vellanca/Citabria Super Decathalon on what was expected to be a short 2 to 2-1/2 hour pleasure flight, planning to return in time to depart the Flying M with his wife in his own aircraft at midday.

Users are also asked to download Google Earth. "The plane will show up as a regular object with sharp edges, white or nearly white, about 21 pixels long and 30 pixels in wingspan," according to the website. "Marked images will be sent to a team of specialists who will determine if they contain information on the whereabouts of Steve Fossett." This is an approach to more rapidly search a large area of imagery using many eyeballs of people around the world. If Fossett did in fact stay within the region of imagery provided, someone should find some sign of the plane in the imagery, unless the plane managed to go into water and sink." The photo here is an example of the size of object to look for. The white plane shown above (30 pixel wingspan by 21 pixels by length) is approximately the size of Steve's plane. 2 pix

You too can be a part of this real life game of "Where's Steve?" It very easy to do and you can join the search by clicking here on this link. Once on the site, you will be shown a single satellite image. The task is to flag any satellite images which contain foreign objects that may resemble Steve's airplane or parts of a plane. Steve's plane will show up as a regular object with sharp edges, white or nearly white, about 21 pixels long and 30 pixels in wingspan. If in doubt, be conservative and mark the image. For complete coverage, they've set up this HIT system so that that multiple people will cover the same area several times over. Do not worry that missing one little detail will be tragic. It will get caught and marked images will be sent to a team of specialists who will determine if they contain information on the whereabouts of Steve Fossett.

On Steve Fossett's website, is posted a message from Steve's wife saying, "Friends and family of Steve Fossett would like to thank you for helping them with this cause."

So take a minute or two and stop looking at the YouTube videos of Brittany Spears god-awful performance at the MTV Music Awards and help to do some good by getting involved in this attempt to save one of America's true pioneer's and hero. Let's show the world the power of us geeks!