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How smartphones of the future could detect earthquakes

Posting in Environment

When a 7.3 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on Friday, people used their cell phones to instantaneously connect with others, alerting friends and family of danger. Soon, however, it may be the cell phones themselves, not the people using them, that are doing the warning.

Using the tools that are already built-in to the majority of cell phones today, a group of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley believes that they can turn the devices into tiny-earthquake detection systems.

More specifically, the researchers want to put the phone’s accelerometer, which is currently used as a mechanism to tilt and orient the screen, to better use by allowing it to detect earthquake tremors. The hope is that the smartphones will be able to detect the faster-moving, less-damaging P-waves of an earthquake ahead of its destructive S-waves, giving users at least a few seconds notice before the actual event.

“Nowadays, smartphones carry all sorts of sensors, and we can put these to use in unexpected ways,” Berkeley graduate student Qingkai Kong told BBC News. “Right now, we can only detect earthquakes above about Magnitude 5.0, but with better accelerometers in future smartphones we would hope to detect smaller ones as well.”

The group is still working on how to isolate the shaking of an earthquake from all the other normal movements that occur in a given day, but believes it may have solved the problem with an algorithm that can detect typical activities like walking, running and driving and differentiate them from tremors.

Image: Joe Parks/Flickr

[via Smithsonian via BBC News]

— By on December 9, 2012, 1:19 AM PST

Sarah Korones

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Sarah Korones is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written for Psychology Today and Boston's Weekly Dig. She holds a degree from Tufts University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure