Apple takes to the sky to out-map Google

Think of it as the latest round in The Great Map Battle: Apple vs. Google.

With the two tech giants going head-to-head in the fight to outdo the other’s mapping capabilities, the question of who does maps better has been debated by everyone from professional cartographers to couples arguing in the car over which app they should use to take them to wherever they’re going.

The stakes are huge, with both Apple and Google maps in the Top 10 of the list of most popular smartphone apps.

 Source: Nielsen

According to a post last year on tech blog BGR, “while the notion of Apple Maps as a serious rival to Google Maps was admittedly laughable just a few years ago, Apple Maps today is now more popular on the iPhone and iPad than Google Maps.”

Now comes word that Apple has raised the stakes by reportedly using drones and other technologies to beef up its Maps app. Quoting people “familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg reports that the Cupertino tech giant is putting together a team of “robotics and data-collection experts that will use drones to capture and update map information faster than its existing fleet of camera-and-sensor ladened minivans, one of the people said.”

What does Apple hope to get out of using these unmanned aircraft? The sources said engineers plan to fly the UAVs around to do things like check out road signs and update maps to include ongoing construction zones. That data would then be uploaded to special Apple teams that would update maps in real time, thus saving users the headache of getting stuck, say, on a stretch of highway that’s unexpectedly been reduced from four lanes to one to accommodate road-surfacing equipment.

It’s clearly in Apple’s interest to make its Maps feature as accurate and au courant as possible, given the company’s rocky start to the mapping field in 2012. Back then, Maps made headlines for all the wrong things. Here’s how TechRadarPro described the mess:

Offering new features like turn-by-turn navigation, vector graphics and an new Fly-over view for zooming around 3D buildings, Apple Maps initially looked like it was going to be an improvement over Google Maps.

But very quickly iOS 6 upgraders began to notice problems: Directions took them the wrong way, a phantom airport appeared near Dublin, and Auckland’s main train station appeared to be located in the middle of the sea.

Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized at the time — and even directed users to try alternatives, including Google Maps, as SiliconBeat reported.

“There’s a huge data-quality issue there,” Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, told Fast Company earlier this year. “And I don’t think we initially appreciated all the kinds of technology we would need to do that on an ongoing basis.”

Reports of Apple’s drone effort comes a year after the company filed for an exemption from the FAA to employ drones for commercial purposes, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg. The agency said the FAA gave Apple approval to “operate an unmanned aircraft system to conduct data collection, photography, and videography,” according to one of the documents.

That same application included the names of drones companies whose products Apple planned to use, including SZ DJI Technology and Aibotix GmbH.

Photo illustration: Bay Area News Group


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