NORTH ANDOVER — It looked like a spacecraft on wheels driving around the valley.
But it was actually the Google Street View Car.
Its mission? To drive down public roads and capture the raw material to produce 360-degree panoramic images of roads, buildings and landmarks that are a popular feature of Google Maps.
The car, which is decked out with sophisticated camera gear mounted in a sphere on the roof, is not something you see every day — and it captured the attention of many people across the region this week. On Wednesday, it rolled down Dartmouth Street, a small dead end street off Turnpike Street. As it turned around, two construction workers were seen trying to get a closer look.
The driver said he was not allowed to talk to the press and didn’t know where he was off to next. “I just go where it tells me,” he said, pointing to a large GPS screen mounted inside the Subaru hatchback.
The street view function of Google was launched in 2007. and now offers its close-up looks at many towns and cities across 43 countries, according to Deanna Yick, a spokeswoman for Google Inc. A computer “stitches” together thousands of images the create the seamless panoramic view, according to Google Maps website.
Yick confirmed the car was collecting “refreshed imagery for our feature in Google Maps,” but could not specify what streets it would be filming or how long it would be in the area.
“Some street view imagery of your area is already available on Google Maps, but updating our imagery is something we do from time to time as part of our effort to provide users with the richest, most up-to-date maps possible,” she wrote in an email to The Eagle-Tribune.
In order to collect images from around the world, Google deploys a fleet of similar cars. Each is equipped with 15 lenses, sensors to track its position and lasers to capture data to determine distances, according to Google.
Google has gathered such images with various devices on all seven continents, including Antarctica, using similar equipment attached to things like specialized tricycles and snowmobiles.
The company pays close attention to driving with the sun high enough not to create shadows on buildings and other landscapes. They also take into account weather and temperature when taking the images, Yick said.
While many people find it a thrill to be able to see their properties on Google Maps, some of the images have been somewhat controversial over privacy concerns.
Yick said the program used to capture the images has the ability to automatically blur out faces and license plates.
People can also ask Google for images of houses, cars or themselves be removed from the site by clicking “report a problem,” she said.
The cars have taken many bizarre images over the past five years. Just last month, one of the cars took images of a man pointing a gun from a porch in Detroit.
Others images include car crashes, kids doing wheelies on bicycles and reflections of the car in glass windows.