Google Uses Elephants and Camels to Map Remote Parts of the Globe

ULURU, Australia--Google is coming across some unusual challenges as it seeks to capture eye-level imagery of the most remote parts of the globe.

In a recent foray into the Australian outback, Google's amateur cartographers used a backpack to lug bulky camera equipment around Uluru, a popular tourist site also known as Ayers Rock. One hitch: they had to avoid photographing certain parts of the red rock formation that are especially sacred to the local Aboriginal people.

Having taken shots of many of the world's streets using cameras on vehicles, Google is moving to more difficult locations. On the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, where it captured images of a volcano, the company sought to photograph lava without any of its cameras falling in. And in Cambodia, monkeys destroyed its equipment.

The images are being used to enhance Street View, a component of the company's popular Google Maps app, as the company searches for new features that will entice users. Starting today, users will be able to take a continuous, virtual walk around much of Uluru.

Maps are becoming more important to the world's largest technology companies as they chase billions of dollars in potential advertising revenue and invest in something that is crucial to the autonomous-vehicle industry. The value of ads that are based on a user's location will grow to $32 billion by 2021 from $12 billion in 2016 in the U.S., according to estimates from BIA/Kelsey, a media and advertising consulting firm. These location-targeted ads will take up 45% of the mobile-ad market by 2021, the firm said, up from 38% last year.

Google, a part of Alphabet Inc., has been cautiously adding advertising to Google Maps. Last year, it unveiled "promoted pins," where location markers appear in different colors to advertise certain businesses. The challenge for Google is integrating ads without cluttering the app.

Competitors in mapping include Apple Inc. and a host of other players, including privately-held Here Technologies, which is part-owned by German automakers Audi AG, BMW AG and Daimler AG. In the market for general consumers, Google has a clear lead. Google Maps was the fourth most popular mobile app overall in the U.S., while Apple Maps was the 12th most popular, according to a 2016 report from comScore.

On Monday, Apple said it would add floor plans for airports and malls in cities like Hong Kong, London and Chicago to its Maps app. It also is updating the app to show speed limits and lane navigation for drivers. The company hasn't said anything about extending its maps to remote locations.

While Here Technologies isn't focusing on cultural sites like Uluru in the same way as Google is, it has a fleet of camera-equipped cars mapping roads in remote regions of the Philippines.

"Cars have been stuck in mud, cars have not been too successful in crossing creeks and rivers, and cars have been stuck in sand," said Brent Stafford, Here's Asia-Pacific director.

At Uluru, a roughly 2,800-kilometer drive northwest of Sydney in the central Australian desert, Google relied on amateur human cartographers, though in other remote locations, camera packs were donned by animals. An elephant helped to map in Thailand, and a camel wore a camera pack in the United Arab Emirates.

"This is not a case of driving up there in a four-wheel drive and just going off road," said Casey Whitelaw, engineering director for Google Maps in Sydney.

Google was approached by tourism officials from Australia's Northern Territory, where Uluru is located, to map the site. It also worked with Parks Australia, which operates the country's national parks, and the Aboriginal community near Uluru. It is a spiritual site for Aboriginal Australians and tourists flock to the red rock to see it change colors at sunrise and sunset.

"I hope it's not going to mean that people will look at it at home and think, 'Oh, OK, well I don't need to go to Uluru now,'" said Sammy Wilson, a local Aboriginal leader who also chairs the board for Uluru's national park, speaking through an interpreter in the Pitjantjatjara language. "I hope that it will make them think about what more there is to learn and understand and appreciate from visiting here."

Google was given a map that showed which areas of Uluru were too sensitive to photograph. Mr. Wilson offered a metaphor to explain why visitors are discouraged from taking pictures of some areas. He said Uluru as a whole is like a living room, a place to receive visitors. But particularly sacred areas around the rock are like a bedroom, a private area where visitors shouldn't go.

Imaging places like a volcano "sounds like a very Google-y thing to do, even if that by itself is not something that can be commercialized," said Colin Sebastian, a research analyst at Baird in San Francisco.

Write to Mike Cherney at

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 07, 2017 10:15 ET (14:15 GMT)