Smartphones Detect Earthquakes: Devices Could Be Used To Create Seismic Networks, Researchers Say
A motion-sensing chip built into many cell phones, laptops and video game consoles could be used as real-time earthquake sensors, new research from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy suggests. The chip, known as a Micro-Electro-Mechanical System accelerometer, or MEMS, is a tiny gyroscope that tells your iPhone to change its screen orientation when you rotate your phone. MEMS can also tell your iPhone that you're in the midst of an earthquake, the researchers say.
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"Theoretically, any device connected to the Internet with an internal MEMS accelerometer, such as a computer or mobile phone, can become a strong-motion seismic station, and that could be easily used to enormously increase the number of observation points when an earthquake occurs," said Antonino D'Alessandro, co-author of the study published in Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
In the study, D'Alessandro and his team used the LIS331DLH chip, a MEMS accelerometer used in the iPhone 4 and iPhone 5, among other devices. The MEMS was attached to a seismic testing device and placed on a vibrating table. The MEMS results were then compared to those taken from an EpiSensor FBA EST seismometer. The team found that the MEMS accelerometer reliably detected motion from an earthquake with a magnitude of 5 or higher.
The benefit of having thousands of data points during an earthquake could be enormous, the researchers say.
"The number of victims following a strong earthquake depends mainly on the intensity of shaking, and the speed of rescue operations," said D'Alessandro. "A real-time urban seismic network can drastically reduce casualties in urban areas immediately following a strong earthquake, by quickly distributing information about the distribution and intensity of ground shaking."
The researchers don't mention how such a system would actually be implemented -- volunteers? telecom requirement? -- only that it's possible to use smartphones in this way.
This isn't the first time that smartphones have been tested for their seismographic capabilities. Last year, seismologists from the University of California, Berkeley, published an article [PDF] in which they tested Android and iPhone MEMS accelerometers during simulated earthquake shaking. They found that both phone systems were able to determine the difference between shaking from activities like running and walking, as opposed to shaking from the earthquake simulation, 97 percent of the time.
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