In today’s world of Google Maps, Foursquare, Uber, and Waze, it’s easy to forget that digital, localized maps have not always been available.

Several hundred years ago, accurate maps were worth many times their weight in gold as they could mean the difference between a successful trading mission, or death on the high seas. Before then, most of the world was not mapped, and the few existing maps contained warnings of danger (or dragons!) beyond a very narrow horizon.

Just as recently as 10 years ago, maps were generally regarded as large pieces of paper with many folds that had to be spread out on a large surface to even be useful for navigating a new destination or even your hometown.

Surprisingly, there are still large parts of the world that are not well-mapped. When U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan Allan Phillip Mustard arrived in the country’s capital of Ashgabat two years ago, he could not find a good map of the city. For him, this meant he could not find a gas station in a city of over a million people, and that was the least of it.

Ashgabat has not been well-mapped for many reasons: the road names are in four different languages and two different alphabets; it’s a relatively new city built on the high central Asian plains by former nomadic tribes; and Ashgabat has not historically done much business with international companies.


A map of Ashgabat, provided by OpenStreetMaps.

Thanks to millions of map enthusiasts, this is starting to change. OpenStreetMap, for example, is a community of mapmakers who are committed to improving online maps through crowdsourced and up-to-date local information. In just six months, working with OpenStreetMap and local volunteers, ambassador Mustard mapped Ashgabat and found a nearby gas station.

The international OSM community has organically produced some remarkable mapping efforts. One is called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). HOT has taken on the task of filling in missing maps in some of the most troubled parts of the world, and by doing so, saving lives.

I recently attended a HOT mapathon event in Brussels. We mapped parts of eastern Congo where Doctors Without Borders is working to deliver much needed medicine and medical care. We constructed the maps off of satellite images of the region donated by DigitalGlobe. The images had the resolution to reveal roads and villages, and by mapping these features we were providing a guide for the upcoming humanitarian campaign.

Interestingly, even with this incredible satellite technology, we were not able to completely map the region. Some of the satellite images were obscured by clouds. In others, features were hidden by trees. Sometimes, the images were as much as a year old, which significantly reduces their relevance.

Maps are more than a record of locations on the Earth, they are a record of locations in time. A satellite image from six months ago will not show the road that has since washed out, the village that has since moved, or the road block in the conflict zone. But up-to-date satellite imagery can be difficult and expensive to acquire, store, and make useful in our rapidly changing world.

In the future, drones hold tremendous potential for filling in these gaps. Drones used for photography and photogrammetry are already able to fill in missing information with a real-time view of the world below 400 feet. Beyond informing accurate mapmaking, drones deliver a hyperlocal birds-eye view in the developing world, ensuring that medical supplies arrive where they are needed and relief workers can do their jobs safely.

AirMap, too, plays a key role in constructing this real-time view of the world, by providing time-critical updates to drone maps so that drones can fly safely where ever they need to go. Our traffic alerts already allow drone pilots to see potential flying hazards in real-time. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), wildfires, and other emergencies are updated every few minutes on AirMap. Altogether, AirMap’s accurate and robust airspace data gives drones the best possible view of the their airspace for safe and efficient flight.

Since their first use, maps have always held the promise of safety and guidance in otherwise uncertain situations. As drones and AirMap become integral components of the real-time mapping of our world, this promise continues to be actualized.

Dr. Jason Melbourne is a Data Wizard at AirMap, developing scalable data solutions for drone airspace management.