App Gives Nerds-Eye View of Land Below

Pick a window seat–designed by a geologist, Flyover Country identifies terrain from 35,000 feet.


One winter, flying back to the States from skiing in Europe, I looked out the window to see a mountainous paradise that blew away the terrain of the Alps I’d just visited. I flagged down a flight attendant, asked where we were, and learned it was Greenland. That began my obsession with the place-instead of just idle curiosity, it took three years, but I eventually found a way to get there and ski.

No longer do you have to bug the flight attendants: An app funded by the National Science Foundation and created by Shane Loeffler, a geology student at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, does just that-IDs places, I mean, not bugs the flight attendant.

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Flyover Country uses your phone’s GPS, which works even in airplane mode, and identifies key features below. They’re mostly geology related, but the app also stores Wikipedia information to tag parks, rivers, mountains, and other non-rock elements. Before your flight, when you have access to the internet, you simply click on the starting and end points of the flight and save the data for offline use.

I recently tested the app on a flight from Southern California to Denver. The flight path took about 90 seconds to draw on my iPhone 6s Plus and another two minutes to download 212MB of Wikipedia, geology, and fossil information. Yep, nerd.

Flyover Country still feels a little bare bones, but Loeffler and his team see this as just the beginning of what could be a deep, robust experience. Co-developer Amy Myrbo told Smithsonian, “We have maybe a dozen more data sources that we’re going to be working with in the coming months. Things like the chemistry of rocks, core samples from the oceans, information about earthquakes…[Scientists] are pretty excited to have their data get out there in a way that’s appealing, exciting and easy.”

What would be even better is to combine Flyover Country with an app like Theolodite to create an augmented reality location identifier. In fact, I already use Theolodite that way. The app, its developer says, “overlays real time information about position, altitude, bearing, range, and inclination on the iPhone’s live camera image, like an electronic viewfinder.” I simply put the place I want identified in the crosshairs, snap a photo to capture an image with all the location data laid on top, and look it up via longitude and latitude once I’m back online. It’s a slightly awkward workaround, but it works in those times when the internet isn’t, you know, around.

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Photo of Mt. Rainier by Craig Wyzik

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal.
Showing 2 comments
  • mikeday
    Reply

    this is super cool. it would be neat to see it combined with an app like maps.me for a more complete and accurate mapping/navigational experience. way to go nerds, power to ya!

  • Wesley Hodgson
    Reply

    Have you used PeakFinder? I use it kind of like how you described Theodolite, but just for identifying mountains.

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