Not just a photo: who and how creates panoramas in online maps


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One of the main tools of modern online maps is panoramas. Ten years ago we could not imagine that they would help us both in everyday life and in business. We talk about who creates them and how

Who uses panoramas and how?

Panoramas are not just pictures and photographs of the area, but a multifunctional tool. It helps businesses, city services and ordinary people. For example, to find a suitable property for a cafe, store, auto repair shop or office, there is no longer any need to travel around half the city – just look at the panoramas.

Users themselves can see in advance what the place they want looks like, and in the interactive format of panoramas it is possible to build a walking route. Including virtually walking through new cities and seeing sights, natural beauty and unusual places without leaving home: for example, a glacier in the Andes, the Krenitsyn volcano, the Vitim River in Yakutia, or the almost abandoned village of Karamken in the Magadan region, where only three people live.
Panoramas are also useful for architects or city services. For example, architects can conduct an initial assessment of the site for the construction of facilities and landscaping. The panoramas also show the condition of asphalt and sidewalks, which helps city services plan road work.

History of the issue: how panoramas have changed in recent years

Until recently, digital city maps were not much different from paper maps. The turning point was 2009. Then the first panoramas of Moscow and St. Petersburg were published, and later – of all regional centers. As a result of the first shooting in the capital, only the main streets appeared in the panoramas. Since then, the service has been constantly improved – coverage has grown, images have become more and more detailed.
About five years ago, users themselves began uploading panoramas, which resulted in images of hard-to-reach locations: for example, mountains, caves or the Far North. And over the past couple of years, panoramas have stepped forward. Filming began to take place en masse in courtyards and much more densely in the private sector.

Now in Moscow and St. Petersburg, panoramas are updated every year, in regional centers – once every 2-3 years.

How panoramic photography works

The panorama car is the most common shooting method used by professional cameramen. This is a machine on which four cameras are installed, directed in different directions: three on the side and one upward. This allows you to get a spherical view.
The panoramic car must be equipped with GPS. Camera resolution according to Yandex standards must be at least 10 megapixels. Such a car moves along the intended route at a speed of no more than 60 km/h, and every 15–30 m all cameras simultaneously take pictures – so you can look in any direction in panoramas. For the best picture, the operator has to leave early in the morning – there are fewer cars and other visual noise. It is logical that only daylight hours and days without precipitation are suitable, so the weather in city panoramas is always good.

Pedestrian photography is used in cases where a panoramic vehicle cannot drive into the desired location – sidewalks, pedestrian streets, small courtyards, parks and public gardens are inaccessible to it. Therefore, when filming such areas, pedestrian operators are involved in the work. These are employees whom Yandex specifically hires in cities where they plan to film pedestrian areas. For work, they are given an action camera with a 360° view. It is attached to a tripod, and the tripod is attached to a special belt.
Each operator has a mobile application “People’s Maps”, in which he receives a task for bypassing. Usually this is one polygon with 200–600 points: a pedestrian needs to walk to each of them and take panoramic pictures there. These walks help collect information for cartographers, who update the map and make it more detailed.

In large pedestrian areas, photography on a bicycle is sometimes used: these are parks, estates, forest paths and embankments. The equipment and the shooting process are similar to the operating mechanism of a panorama car.

Panoramas are taken by an employee on a special tricycle with a camera attached to its body. The operator can travel up to 15 km per day, so such filming requires good physical preparation. For example, in 2021, we filmed about 100 km of bicycle panoramas in the Kolomenskoye Museum-Reserve, Tsaritsyno, Academic Park, Muzeon, VDNKh and many other places.

Shooting on water is a separate block of work. Here a boat is used, equipped with a device with cameras in the upper part. It is extremely important to choose the right day. After all, you need to avoid rain – it can damage equipment, strong wind – the pictures turn out blurry due to the motion. It is also important to monitor the density of other vessels on the water. On the one hand, ships passing by are visual noise, and on the other, another reason for rocking.

Despite the difficulties of the work, last year we updated the water panoramas in Moscow, filming more than 200 km of the Moscow River and Yauza, as well as the Kozhukhovsky backwater, the Bolshoy Stroginsky backwater and the Khimki reservoir.

Not only company employees have the opportunity to take a panorama for Yandex Maps. Anyone can take a panoramic photo with a good camera on their phone or a personal 360 camera according to the instructions . If the photo meets the technical requirements and passes moderation, it will be included on the map.

How panoramas help update online maps
Panoramas are an important source of information that allows maps to be updated. Thanks to car panoramas, you can improve navigation for drivers. Road signs, markings, traffic lights, and house numbers are read from the images using computer vision. The latest data helps update tips on where to turn, how fast to drive, when to slow down for a speed bump, and more.
Pedestrian panoramas make it possible to add even more details to the map and adapt it for walking routes around the city. With their help, it is possible to determine where the pedestrian paths, benches, garbage cans, entrances and entrances to buildings are located, and even adjust the organization’s operating hours, if they are indicated on the facade.

Finally, panoramas are actively used to create new, highly detailed city maps. In them, buildings and other objects are displayed in three-dimensional format, and road markings are visible. To digitize several thousand kilometers of road surface, the Yandex Maps team came up with the technology of so-called reprojected panoramas. It generates a picture from a panoramic image that looks like a satellite image. The resulting image makes it possible to look at the roads in good quality in a “top” projection. This way the cartographer immediately understands all the features of current road markings.


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