Google Earth and Amazon.com tools are being utilised in the search for Richard Branson's fellow aviator and adventurer Steve Fossett. Fossett, who was the first person to fly a plane around the world without refueling and also the first person to fly around the world in a balloon, has been missing since taking off in a private plane in Nevada last week.

Fossett disappeared on September 3 when he took off from a private airstrip 80 miles southeast of Reno in a small, blue, white and yellow single engine airplane. The area of Nevada where he went missing is rugged terrain, and rescuers have been unable to locate Fossett or his plane, said Frank Taylor, in his unofficial Google Earth blog. Taylor wrote that Amazon has set up a website so users can help in the search effort.

New satellite imagery has been taken by GeoEye, a company that owns and operates three imaging satellites, and Amazon's Mechanical Turk web service has been used to produced a website so users can search for his plane using this satellite imagery. The Mechanical Turk is a web service that integrates information gathered by humans performing a certain task.

To participate, users sign up at the site and provide their addresses to help with the search. They will be shown a single satellite image and should flag any satellite images that contain foreign objects that may resemble Fossett's airplane or parts of a plane.

Users are also asked to download Google Earth.

"The plane will show up as a regular object with sharp edges, white or nearly white, about 21 pixels long and 30 pixels in wingspan," according to the webite. "Marked images will be sent to a team of specialists who will determine if they contain information on the whereabouts of Steve Fossett."

"This is an approach to more rapidly search a large area of imagery using many eyeballs of people around the world," Taylor said in his blog. "If Steve Fossett did in fact stay within the region of imagery provided, someone should find some sign of the plane in the imagery, unless the plane managed to go into water and sink."

Computerworld