Apple is looking to continue expansion of Apple Maps with new indoor location mapping features for 2017, such as airport and museum navigation, according to a new Bloomberg story. The company is also working on new turn-by-turn features, including improved directions to switch lanes whilst driving.
Perhaps most interestingly, the report says Apple plans to deploy a fleet of flying drones to help with data collection efforts for Apple Maps. The drones would be able to analyze street signs, track the status of roadworks and more. Apple does not plan to release a drone as a consumer item to compete with products like the Parrot Drone; the fleet would be for its own private business uses.
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Apple already uses a team of camera-equipped vehicles for ground truth efforts; these cars are constantly driving around the world taking photos of places and collecting information about roads through a variety of sensors.
However, these cars have to be manned by a person (self-driving vehicles aren’t a reality quite yet) so the scale of this team is naturally limited. Adding drones in to the mix would greatly expand the reach of this data collection work.
Drones can also reach places that cars sometimes can’t, as well as skip pedestrian traffic. The Bloomberg report says Apple’s drone fleet could watch the progress of construction projects and then “rapidly update the Maps app” with the latest information. The FAA granted Apple’s application to operate an unmanned aircraft system in March 2016.
However, there are a lot of regulations regarding where and when drones can be flown for commercial data collection purposes, so it remains to be seen where Apple’s drones will actually be located in the real world.
Indoor mapping features for Apple Maps have been rumored for several years. Google already offers indoor mapping of major POI locations in its mapping product. The Bloomberg article says Apple wants to add an indoor view to the Maps app for popular landmarks, museums and airports. An Apple user would then follow instructions on their iPhone to get to their destination inside the buildings.
In an August interview, Apple executive Eddy Cue explained that Maps is a big investment for the company with little monetary reward; it is expensive to maintain an accurate worldwide mapping service which has no clear direct revenue stream.
Flying a fleet of semi-autonomous drones is not cheap either but Apple has the bank balance to make it happen. Bloomberg says Apple has hired at least one person from Amazon’s Prime Air division to get the drone project off the ground.