How Does Google Maps Get Street Views?

By David Wayne

The Street View Snowmobile charts many North American ski ranges.
i Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The continuous, panoramic Street View photographs of Google Maps brings an intimate view of locations around the world, including places inaccessible by car, such as mountains, narrow alleys and building interiors. Google uses lasers, GPS equipment, computers and cameras to capture images from a chassis mounted on a car, backpack, tricycle, trolly or snowmobile, depending on the location. After capturing a series of overlapping images, Google photographers use specialized software to combine them into one seamless, 360-degree photograph.

Car-Mounted Equipment

Since roads cover most Google Maps locations, a Street View Car captures most images. These cars contain computers and GPS devices for processing images and pinpointing locations, and sophisticated camera mounts attached to their roofs support cameras with lasers for reading an object's distance and for building a 3-D model of the surroundings. Although Street View Cars can reach most Google Maps locations, many places around the world support competing technology or pose too many risks to Google engineers because of war or political complexity. Most of Africa, the Middle East and East Asia lack Street View photographs.

Pedicab Street Views

The Street View Trike is a tricycle with much of the same equipment as the car. The rider doesn't have to operate the camera while pedaling because the camera automatically captures images from all angles. Since many historic locations in Europe still have roads designed before the use of automobiles, the tricycle helps Google engineers photograph these places more efficiently than they can with backpack-mounted cameras. Aside from Ukraine and Turkey, Google Maps includes Street Views of all locations in Europe as well as the most densely populated places in Russia.

Street Views by Foot

The Street View Trekker is a backpack-mounted camera that enables Google engineers to photograph undeveloped areas inaccessible by wheeled vehicles or snowmobiles. Google Maps contains Street Views of all locations in the United States, including remote areas such as the Grand Canyon. Like with the Trekker, engineers use the Street View Trolley to photograph locations on foot, such as museums, sports stadiums and the White House. The trolley is a camera mounted on a hand truck that a photographer pulls through a building's interior. Like other Street View cameras, the Trekker and Trolley operate automatically while a photographer moves through a location.

Mountaintop Views

The Street View Snowmobile captures images from ski slopes and mountain ranges around the world. Google engineers insulate the snowmobile's hard drives to keep them warm enough to record digital photography and other data. Like the pedicab, the snowmobile supports a camera chassis mounted behind the driver, who traverses mountain slopes as the rotating camera automatically captures images. Google has used the snowmobile to chart complete ski routes, such as Whistler Peak, Squaw Valley and Breckenridge mountain slopes.