Most people have never heard of Aerials Express. But many have seen their work.
The low-profile company, which maintains its headquarters at the Arizona State University Research Park in Tempe, takes urban aerial photographs used by real estate companies, city planners and others to show development patterns and how land use is changing.
The firm's high-resolution images are frequently used in murals and on Web sites such as Mapquest and Yahoo Maps to show everything from Manhattan Island to Chicago's Loop to downtown Phoenix.
The company has just finished an aerial survey of the entire Phoenix/Pinal County/Tucson region, which took about two months to complete. That means that mapping services and Web sites soon will have access to aerial views showing the latest developments in Arizona's rapidly changing urban scene.
"We do Phoenix about once a year," said general manager Luke Pritchard. "When things were really cooking, we were doing it twice a year."
Aerials Express doesn't limit itself to Arizona. The company has completed aerial photo surveys of just about every major metropolitan area in the United States and has started covering Canadian cities as well.
The company does the surveys under contract to specific customers such as commercial real estate companies, planning agencies or utilities. But in the case of the Valley and other rapidly growing areas such as Dallas and Atlanta, the company provides coverage on spec under the assumption that its images will be in demand by customers who want off-the-shelf images with the latest land use information, Pritchard said.
The company digitally stitches together a mosaic of many photographs into seamless large-area images that can be used for corporate presentations and marketing materials, decorative murals or Web sites directing computer users to unfamiliar locations.
"It's as much an art as a craft," said Robert Moore, director of aerial operations, adding that "our business is built on the idea that current imagery is the cornerstone of accurate geographic decision-making."
The company owns a Cessna twin engine aircraft equipped with built in camera that it bases in Nashville, Tenn., to photograph eastern areas of the country. In the West the firm contracts with aviation operators to provide coverage.
The process is simple - just fly back and forth over the area of interest and snap repeated photographs, Pritchard said.
Aerials Express was founded by aerial photography pioneer Jerry Landis in 1999. Landis had previously founded his Landiscor aerial photography service in the 1950s, but he sold the company in the late 1980s.
Landiscor remains in operation, and the companies compete to some degree, although Pritchard said Landiscor concentrates on the southwest United States while Aerials Express operates nationwide.
"We each have our niches," he said.
Aerials Express also competes with satellite imagery, although Pritchard said satellites are most useful for photographing remote areas or other areas that airplanes can't reach.
Aerials Express has access to satellite images if customers want them through its parent company, iCubed of Fort Collins, Colo., which is an image broker with access to satellite and aerial photos.
"They work very well together," Pritchard said of the satellite and airplane photography.