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How a giant subwoofer could prevent deadly disasters

Posting in Design

Listen to this. At a recent TED conference in Auckland, Matthew Simmons of Arvus Group describes how his infrasound technology can prevent avalanches and bird strikes (full video below).

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Big booming bass "music" is something that polarizes people.

"Turn it down, as***ole!" implore some.

"Cool," say others (I don't know what this week's in-vogue cool word is for cool but you get the point).

When Matthew Simmons hears it, he has a slightly different response, which you could paraphrase as "let's save some lives."

Simmons, co-founder of New Zealand technology innovation firm Arvus Group, wants to direct inaudible, sub-bass sound waves at mountainsides to both prevent and release snow build-up and avoid the surprise avalanches that kill every year. The waves are called infrasound.

"We should be able to create, when it's snowing, enough infrasound and the right type of infrasound so that the snow does not reside as thickly on the mountain in certain areas as it would do without the infrasound, so that you're eliminating, or significantly reducing the chance of an avalanche," says Simmons, who I spoke with by Skype recently.

FOR THE BIRDS

The same ultra-low frequency technology can also frighten away birds from the airspace around airports, thus reducing the accidents that happen when birds meet jet engines, he notes.

Likewise, infrasound can help detect when volcanoes are blowing or when earthquakes are coming, says Simmons. While existing detector systems already pick up a volcano's own infrasound emissions, Simmons' Arvus wants to deploy a "geo acoustic" technology that generates a steady infrasound stream to overcome the unreliability of the detection systems.

Simmons' fascination with the grand possibilities of infrasound is no accident. The 40-something New Zealander is a longtime entrepreneur who started out repairing speakers when he was twelve. Over the years he expanded into designing cinema sound systems for Sony, and at one point he was known for his company's Bladder Buster, an 8-foot, 550-pound subwoofer that would make an average souped-up, booming audio system sound like calming New Age music that you might hear at a California bed and breakfast.

Now he's redirecting his expertise (and his sound waves). His infrasound technology is not a subwoofer or a speaker per se. But it is safe to say that his Bladder Buster inspired his company's new method for generating ultra-low frequency sound waves.

OTHER SOUNDINGS

Arvus is not the only company that's exploring new uses for infrasound. Technology International of Laplace, Louisiana is testing a bird-fighting infrasound system that it militarily dubs the "Avian Infrasound Non-Lethal Denial System," New Scientist writes.

Infrasound could replace annoying noise makers that airports use today against birds (bird damage costs the aviation industry billions of dollars in damage a year, Simmons notes) and will also have agricultural applications.

"Whether we do it, or whether this company (Technology International) does it, there will be a technology using infrasound to create exclusion zones for airports and vineyards and other places in the near future," says Simmons.

Simmons also has personal earthquake experience - he and his family relocated to Hamilton following damage to their home in the February, 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

They stopped for a while in Taupo, New Zealand, where Simmons began fiddling with an energy technology that could help usher in sustainable power generation ranging from geothermal to nuclear. I'll sound off about that in a subsequent post. Stay tuned to SmartPlanet  - and crank it up to a high volume, if you want.

Meanwhile, here's a YouTube video of Simmons presenting about his infrasound technology at an October TED conference in Auckland:

Photos: Screen grab from YouTube video of TED conference in Auckland.

— By on February 3, 2013, 9:16 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure