PRINCE FREDERICK, MARYLAND - A strange looking motorized raft, loaded with all kinds of cameras, sensors and high-tech widgets, looks like an invader from outer space. But it serves the down-to-earth purpose of making extraordinary maps of waterways of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the Eastern United States.
The pontoon raft has a 4-meter-tall silver metal column in the center, with a white box on top that points toward the sky above the scenic Patuxent River in Maryland.
The unique craft was designed and built by Ryan Abrahamsen, founder of Terrain 360, a hiking trail and waterways virtual mapping company. Inspired by Google Street View, Abrahamsen has loaded the raft with photo cameras to create 360-degree virtual tours of some rivers in the United States from the perspective of sitting in a canoe.
Abrahamsen said creating a virtual map is challenging and requires many cameras working together.
How it’s done
“On the heavy column, there are six cameras at the top, a light sensor and GPS unit. Near the bottom of the raft there is a waterproof PC, with an ultra-bright touch screen. The cameras are triggered by the computer, which at the same time records the GPS coordinates, barometric pressure, humidity and temperature.”
As the raft motors along the Patuxent, the extreme wide-angle lens cameras shoot photos simultaneously every 12 meters. It takes hundreds of thousands of the high-resolution images to create the virtual online panoramic tour. A separate computer program uploads the photos in order, according to the GPS coordinates.
Abrahamsen is adding 20,000 new photos taken from just one of the Patuxent River’s coves. He said all kinds of things are captured along the way, including trees, birds, homes and people fishing.
Following in Smith’s footsteps
The Patuxent is among the 11 rivers that Abrahamsen has recorded, following the journey of English explorer Capt. John Smith, who some 400 years ago traveled around the Chesapeake Bay, the country’s largest estuary. Smith mapped about 4,800 kilometers of the bay and nearby rivers.
Now, Abrahamsen is providing an entirely new way to experience the waterways through his spectacular online tour. Viewers can zoom in and adjust the viewing angle to get a close-up look at boats, rocks beneath the surface, and even fish jumping out of the water.
The Chesapeake Bay project is funded by an Annapolis, Maryland, environmental group, the Chesapeake Conservancy.
“We wanted to give people the information and inspiration to get on our rivers, and explore the Chesapeake Bay area, so that they can enjoy the beauty and think about protecting it,” said Joel Dunn, Chesapeake Conservancy president.
Although a recent report card indicated that the health of the Chesapeake Bay estuary is better than it has been in 33 years, the watershed was still given a “C” grade because rivers like the Patuxent are still in the recovery process.
Abrahamsen said the virtual tours reveal some of the environmental issues.
“There’s shoreline erosion, pollution, and lot of tires in the waterways,” he said. “It shows the public that some things need to be cleaned up.”
The Patuxent and others rivers that flow into the Chesapeake Bay are near major cities, such as Washington and Baltimore, giving many people the opportunity to enjoy them, Dunn said.
“People can use the virtual tour to plan their trips from their desk at home or at work. But they can also use them out on the water on their smartphones from wherever they are,” he said.