Smartphones as seismometers intrigue Berkeley researchers

(—Researchers at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory want to table smartphones as pocket-sized seismometers. The phones used as warning systems could make a life or death difference in the seconds one might have before meeting up with the next event. "We are trying to set up a whole new network of smartphones so we can use the accelerometers in the smartphones to detect earthquakes," a team spokesman told BBC News. With so many devices in circulation, detailed information could be known on who felt what, where.

"Smartphones carry all sorts of sensors, and we can put these to use in unexpected ways," said Qingkai Kong. "Right now, we can only detect earthquakes above about Magnitude 5.0, but with better in future smartphones we would hope to detect smaller ones as well."

The key enabler in smartphones for this type of work is in their accelerometers, that can detect and record movement and may monitor tremors. An app is being developed that will record the shaking during major events and then report the data back to a central server over the cell network.

But what good is short notice when an earthquake is on its deadly way? Advance notice even in seconds is actually of value, as the BBC report noted, in not only giving people time to take cover but for trains to slow or planes to abort landings or for surgeons to manage their procedures knowing the event is on its way.

The theory is that a would feed directly into the , having detected faster moving but not as damaging P-waves ahead of S-waves in an event.

The Berkeley initiative was made known at the Fall meeting. As phones would be mobile and not sitting still on a flat surface, the researchers handled this by developing an algorithm to subtract "noise" in the data. The project is at an early stage.

The topic of earthquakes hits very close to home at this lab; the Hayward Fault, which many scientists suspect is a potential trigger for a major earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, runs through the UC Berkeley campus. According to scientists and engineers in a 2008 report, it has a 31 percent probability of rupturing in a magnitude 6.7 or greater earthquake within the next 30 years. The team hopes to provide a test app next year to volunteers in the Bay Area.

Actually, according to an observation from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) noted earlier this year, Internet-enabled devices, not just smartphones, but also laptops and game consoles now have accelerometers that can be used to detect and measure earthquakes. "Harnessing the data from these sensors could allow us to quickly detect large earthquakes, and accurately estimate where damage has occurred and where emergency responses are needed shortly after a quake." Nonetheless, it added, smartphones have a powerful collection of sensors like GPS, accelerometers, and gyroscopes that make phones an ideal platform for collecting data about how a community experiences an .

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Dec 07, 2012
I can't figure out if they're putting their motion detectors in the cell-phones to detect vibration, or networking every turned on cell phone through GPS to detect longitudinal/latitudinal tremor waves. I'm hedging on both.

Dec 07, 2012
They could develop an app that would filter out noise and report large,rhythmic accelerations to the network.Wouldn't help the owners of the detecting smart-phones,though.

Dec 08, 2012
So... a couple years ago I had a very similar idea for ground based ionospheric mapping.

Use the antenna already present in everyone's car, (calibrated to some experimentally derived standardized value that varies from car to car due to variable antenna gain), plus a couple of simple circuit boards with FPGA's and GPS capabilities and that should do it, more or less.

Program the antennas to sweep through frequencies and record a spectrograph, report their position at the time of data acquisition, and analysis can do the rest.

Then you realize... To do this on any kind of large, meaningful scale, you'd probably have to contract with existing telecom towers here and there and have the cars broadcasting the data, because the owners aren't going to upload it often. You'd need a lot of cars outfitted, too.

And then, you realize that people don't even like the idea of broadcasting data to any organization that keeps records of their whereabouts.

If anyone can pull it off, go for it.

Dec 08, 2012
Monitoring the accelerometer all the time consumes the battery, So perhaps you will want an accelerometer that can detect interesting signals by itself, but it would also have to tell if it was sitting on a table and not swinging in a handbag or pocket.

If phones in an area pick something up, then the network could do a quick push notify to wake up other phones in the area to get detailed measurements.

and am_Unition it sounds like you are reinventing the ionosonde!

Dec 08, 2012
A while back someone worked out how to use the accelerometers in laptop computers to uses as seismic sensors. There are in these machines to detect when a laptop is dropped or knocked off the table, and they quickly lock up the hard drive so it isn't broken by the fall. (They're in machines that still have hard drives as opposed to flash drives)
Since the accelerometers only cost about $30- $35 each, in addition to having volunteers install apps to deal with seismic signals, dedicated seismometers could be built and installed all over the place. It helps if they are glued or screwed to a solid surface. They're not as sensitive as regular seismometers, but those ones cost tens of thousands of dollars, iirc, and take up a lot more room. They could be mounted to city light standards, power poles, or the like, and even be powered by solar or inductive electric power.

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